(Photo: Aubrey Edwards)

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Welcome to Ground Zero—Literally—for Sea Level Rise in North America

A bayou port for the oil and gas industry is under threat from global warming. The jambalaya is served with a side of irony.
Apr 18, 2014· 15 MIN READ
Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio, and a former staff reporter for the Sustainability Desk at Marketplace Radio.

You’ve never seen so many large white men with big black pots. Teams of determined Cajuns stare into their chaudières noires, wrought iron cauldrons that hold up to 40 gallons of white-tailed deer dirty rice, nutria stew, or alligator sauce piquante. They’re competing for best dish at the annual Wild Game Supper in the bayou town of Larose, La.

“New Orleans? Where’s that again?” Nothing cracks up round-bellied and gray-bearded cook Bob Faulk like a little exaggerated provincialism. Twenty miles northeast is the answer, but Faulk loves his hometown, a marshy place where the barges of the Intracoastal Waterway shipping channel intersect with the shrimp boats and offshore oil rig supply vessels of Bayou Lafourche as the old Mississippi River distributary snakes toward the Gulf of Mexico. “I get nosebleed if I go above sea level,” says Faulk in the pitter-patter rhythm of his Cajun accent. Any community fund-raiser, he’ll be there with his pot and propane tank. He’d like to talk more, “but I’m reaching a real critical point here. Scott!” He calls over his son to stir with a big wooden paddle as he scoops in some rice. The giant pot has been perched over a flame since around noon; now it’s almost dusk. The cooks’ paddles bang against the iron as the men hand off to one another for more rounds of stirring. “If you don’t hit the sides with every stroke, it won’t taste right,” observes supper coordinator Casey Curole as he strolls down the line of cooks, beer in hand, dipping a hunk of French bread into each pot for a taste.

Faulk has promised to give his son the recipe for his famous wing-and-tail jambalaya, “with quail and shrimp and everything in between,” but only when he reaches his deathbed. By the time that happens, Larose and all the towns that dot the bayou south of it along Louisiana Highway 1 will likely look very different. The land here is disappearing fast. The delta is a dynamic system, layers of soil constantly forming, sinking, and rebuilding. Coastal erosion has been a problem for decades—and has been described since the early 1900s. The acuteness hit home in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a Category 3 storm and drove so much water into New Orleans’ levees that they broke, flooding the city. It was also the year of Wilma and Rita, storms that, like Katrina, blew apart delicate marshes and drove saltwater into the ecosystem, causing faster erosion. Today south Louisiana has the highest rate of coastal erosion in the nation. In February data from the National Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed the region also has the highest predicted rates of sea level rise in the world. Up to 16 square miles of land are lost to the Gulf of Mexico every year. It’s happening so quickly mapmakers can’t keep up. Ben Sherman, director of NOAA communications and external affairs, recalls taking reporters out to see oiled grasses after the 2010 BP spill. The captain of the boat they rented was using two-year-old GPS software. Out on the water, he says, “about 50 percent of the day, the map showed we were on land. That’s how fast the land is disappearing.”

Faulk and his neighbors in Cajun country are in the odd position of having their way of life threatened by forces resulting from the industry that supports them. Locals’ attachment to their culture only seems to strengthen as the land is washed away. But there are economic as well as sentimental reasons to shore up and stay put in this sinking region. The world’s appetite for its oil and gas continues to grow. The offshore drilling moratorium imposed after the BP spill was but a pause in a bigger energy narrative that sees deepwater oil exploration expanding dramatically as easier-to-reach sources become tapped out. In 2011, the year after the spill, Gulf rigs produced 1.3 million barrels of oil a day. The Department of Energy expects production to reach 2 million barrels a day by 2020, with most of the difference coming from deepwater, and increasingly deep water at that—even more than the 5,000 feet below the surface where the Macondo well that blew out in 2010 was drilling. Around the world, almost 100 more deepwater rigs will be needed to extract all the crude that oil companies are finding. Their high costs are affordable now that the cost of a barrel has exceeded $100 for years.

Almost all of the deepwater rigs for oil exploration and drilling in the Gulf get their workers, supplies, and anything else they need through Port Fourchon. The vast industrial complex, basically a huge man-made island on a base of dredged mud, is 36 miles south of Larose. LA 1, an old two-lane state highway, provides the only access for the 5,000 workers and 1,000 big rigs that need to go in and out each day. Locals are proud of the port’s success, and proud of their work. The offshore oil industry was pretty much invented by families along the bayou, familiar locals like the Chouests and Cheramies, who put their surnames on companies that have become major players in the oil services industry but started out as small marine outfitters. When rig operators presented them with a problem, they'd figure out a fix, MacGyver style, and then start selling that product. Other local companies affiliated with offshore oil and gas drilling build and maintain boats, run helicopter service for workers, do logistics, and deliver parts or other necessities to the rigs, most of them at least a day’s boat ride away. Locals point out that Lafourche Parish has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. Generations of providing the manpower, building the machinery, and helping develop the technology to drill offshore has made oil and gas as much a part of South Louisiana culture as wing-and-tail jambalaya.

Growing up as kids we hunted ducks; Mom would launch our boat in the morning, and we’d go out and fill our boat and come back home. These days—I killed just 11 ducks this whole year. There’s just no habitat to bring ducks down anymore.

Casey Curole

A thousand or so paying guests shuffle into the Larose Civic Center as the Wild Game Supper begins, the warehouse-like auditorium filled with white-clothed tables and taxidermied deer, ducks, and bobcats for decor. Outside, kids shoot baskets on a court emblazoned with a sort of geometric flower in yellow and green—the BP logo. The 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers, most of them from Louisiana and Mississippi, and spilled an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil, with environmental effects that will likely be coming to light for decades. Among its many compensation schemes, BP gave a lump sum of several hundred thousand dollars to finish construction of the Larose Civic Center.

Casey Curole, a wiry man with a thick accent, says the cooking teams might be made up of family, or they might work in the offshore oil industry together, or simply share cabins for hunting and fishing on the weekends. People here are all defined by their relationship to the environment, he says, because they’re out there working or playing in it almost every day. In their lifetimes—hell, in their adulthoods—they’ve seen the land quickly wash away. Some hunting camps are now only good for fishing, the land too fragile to support animals, or transformed into open water as salt from the Gulf of Mexico eats the marsh.

“We’ve lost so much habitat due to saltwater intrusion,” Curole says. “Growing up as kids we hunted ducks, and Mom would launch our boat in the morning, and we’d go out and kill ducks and fish and fill our boat and come back home. These days I have a camp out in the marsh, and I killed just 11 ducks this whole year. There’s just no habitat to bring ducks down anymore.”

Ron Estay’s team has cooked up a duck fricassée. (He says about a dozen people chipped in to fill the pot, a total of 55 birds; used to be one person could bring down that many in a season.) The dark, roux-based dish combines wild duck with the Cajun holy trinity of onion, bell pepper, and garlic. On another team, Glenn Brunet says he’s given up hunting altogether. “The conditions just aren’t right anymore. You can’t even walk on the marsh. It’s nothing but a darn lake.” The change to more water, though, he points out, has been great for fishing: As the marsh decomposes, it feeds redfish, trout, shrimp, and other species. Brunet’s redfish court bouillon (pronounced “coo-bee-yon” down here) mixes bits of the white-fleshed fish with tomatoes, garlic and onions, butter, lemon, and white wine. At the Wild Game Supper, you could boil down coastal erosion and sea level rise to something like this: less meaty stew, more seafood gumbo. The natural forces that replenished the marsh don’t work the way they did in the old days, though, and once the wetlands disappear, the seafood boom, too, will go bust.

NOAA scientists say that portions of Louisiana Highway 1, the only road serving the port, will soon be flooded every day at high tide. (Photo: Aubrey Edwards)

All this change can be attributed to a mix of factors, mostly man-made. Many locals trace subsidence back to 1904, when the Mississippi River was locked behind a levee at Donaldsonville to prevent flooding of the bayou below. Formerly known as the Chetimachas River, Bayou Lafourche—the name means “fork” in French—was named for how it split off from the river and forked south to the Gulf. Before the dam, silt came with that water, built up along the banks of the bayou, and replenished the naturally sinking land. But for the past century the delta’s been cut off from that process.

Oil and gas were discovered in the marsh in the 1930s, with effects both direct and indirect. Industry cut thousands of canals through the land to get platforms, wellheads, derricks, and boats in and out. The practice was largely unregulated until the 1970s, when scientists began touting the ecological value of the marsh, but by then the landscape was crisscrossed with cuts, exposing the system’s roots. Bigger and more frequent storms, along with sea level rise, then brought more saltwater into the brackish wetlands, eating away at the roots and soil the canals had brought to the surface. Moreover, extracting layers of oil and gas from the earth deflated the land, letting it sink. (Some argue drilling offshore has been good for coastal erosion in one way, because at least there’s no more cutting up of the marsh.)

Today there is still a residue of marsh, which tempers natural tides and keeps storm-driven wave action at bay. As portions of wetlands disappear, water can move around unencumbered, waves build strength and slam with more force into things—things like levees, but also oil rigs, supply boats, and pipelines, says Ted Falgout. He’s a local conservationist and was director of Port Fourchon for 31 years. He notes that people can move inside levee protection, but the oil industry the bayou communities rely on for income can’t avoid increased exposure to open water; the oil is where it is. “So they’re having to spend millions, and they become more and more vulnerable,” Falgout says. The farther out to sea people and businesses have to go to get to the rigs, the more it costs to get them there. The less marsh out in the Gulf, the more dangerous the offshore work becomes as the seas get rougher in the marsh's absence.

Conservationist Ted Falgout was director of Port Fourchon for 31 years. (Photo: Aubrey Edwards)

Driving to Port Fourchon, when all the workers and supplies are staged for the rigs, already feels a bit like preparing for a lunar voyage. You go up, high above the marsh on a raised highway, then down again to what feels like solid land. Port Fourchon itself is relatively resilient, says current port director Chett Chiasson. The man-made bulkheads are several feet above sea level, and the work sheds and offices are built to withstand harsh winds and water, he says. Driving amid the trailers, airplane hangar–size terminals, helicopter pads, docks of massive supply boats, and cranes and other heavy equipment, Chiasson then points out the new area of the port. Mud has been dredged and spread for Slip C, a recent addition to Port Fourchon. With the expected growth in deepwater work, many of the companies that operate out of the port need to expand, and they’ve already reserved space on Slip C. So Chiasson says he’s planning for Slip D.

While the port may be in relatively good shape, access to it is becoming problematic. It’s not just workers, and the food and supplies for them, who need to get out to rigs. “All the different commodities needed—liquid mud, cement, pipe—have to be brought by truck or barge here and then get offshore,” Chiasson says. In 2009, a $139 million, 5.4-mile toll bridge to Port Fourchon opened—a causeway raised on thick pilings over the marsh and the old highway. It costs $3 to drive over, a toll paid by industry and workers. “It has allowed traffic to move a lot easier,” Chiasson says. “When it comes to storms and rising tides, it’s allowed us to get in and out a lot easier and quicker.”

But there is a nine-mile stretch of LA 1 that’s outside levee protection and barely above sea level; Chiasson calls it “our weakest link.” When Hurricane Isaac, a Category 1 storm, struck in 2012, Chiasson says the port got just one foot of water, which was quickly drained, and the facility was ready to reopen eight hours after the storm passed. But that critical part of LA 1 was washed out for almost three days—keeping workers and supplies from getting to the port.

“I ordered more evacuations than probably anyone else in the country because of LA 1,” says Windell Curole (a cousin of Casey’s). The former head of emergency management for the area is now general manager–executive secretary of the South Lafourche Levee District. He says the industry at Port Fourchon provides the economic incentive for raising all the exposed parts of LA 1, and the project will make everyone safer. “Once you get out of the levee system, normal summertime tide can get close to covering the road. If you have even a storm that hits Florida or Texas, water goes over LA 1,” he says.

Now that everything’s settled down, nobody pays any attention to what they do on those rigs. BP, Transocean, and Halliburton testify in court with an astonishing lack of remorse.

Keith Jones, whose son, Gordon, died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion

Tim Osborn, regional navigation manager with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, says it doesn’t take much water to render LA 1 too dangerous to drive, and federal weather and climate models show that the situation will only worsen. “Once you get five or more percent of that road covered with water, then you’re forced to start taking action shutting it down because it’s so dangerous,” Osborn says. “Once you run off that road you’re in the water.” Steve Gill, chief scientist for NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, says even the everyday tides are getting higher and may soon cover the road. The road is officially about two feet above sea level now, and a conservative rate of sea level rise alone—not including the ongoing sinking of the land—should have it underwater completely by 2100.

Sea level rise is like an ultra-slow-motion hurricane for low-lying areas, but unlike a hurricane, it can be forecast decades in advance. Projections that some town or road will be underwater in 100 years can—and must—be mitigated against today.

Osborn characterizes the choice as “being proactive rather than reactive. Once you get into situations like Louisiana facing some very serious challenges in a very near time frame, all of a sudden you’re in a reactive posture.” Louisiana is a harbinger of things to come for New York, Miami, and other major coastal cities that would do well to look 20 to 75 years ahead and budget accordingly. Local, state, and federal governments will have to make critical decisions about infrastructure, water and sediment diversion, and wetlands restoration in the next 10 to 15 years, he says, and while NOAA scientists can contribute data, they can’t green-light projects or secure funding.

Osborn makes a technical distinction: “Right now it’s what’s called frequently flooded. And the risk is it will be routinely flooded.” Routine flooding will start to happen as early as 10 years from now, he says. They can call it whatever they want, but Gill says soon LA 1 will be “flooded every day during high tide.”

NOAA scientists predict that eventually all the marsh that surrounds LA 1 and Port Fourchon will disappear, connecting two major bodies of water that now are distinct: Barataria Bay and Terrebonne Bay. The only thing out in the water at all, by 2100, may be a raised road and Port Fourchon. “I can imagine Port Fourchon being like the Florida Keys,” says Chiasson, “being on its own, in the middle of open water, maybe a little marsh around it, but nothing between here and there.”

A satellite image of Port Fourchon. Before a dam was built upstream, silt was deposited along the banks of Bayou Lafourche, labeled at center, building up the surrounding wetlands. (Photo: Google Images)

There is plenty of weight behind the idea to raise LA 1; there just isn’t the money. Officials estimate a cost of $325 million to raise the highway and have it span the marsh all the way to Port Fourchon. The state approved $40 million for the project last year. Industry has promised $6 million. As for the rest, Chiasson says the U.S. Department of Transportation told him no mechanism is in place to get that amount of money. Because the port serves the entire nation by serving the oil industry, he thinks it’s only fair the federal funds come through. “In our minds the federal government should just be paying for it, and they’d pay for it with royalties from deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.” Currently all offshore drilling revenues go to the federal Treasury; no money is specifically earmarked for Louisiana. Local officials also argue for federal funding in light of the lessons Louisiana can teach other coastal communities as it deals with erosion and sea level rise.

The LA 1 Coalition is a nonprofit formed to lobby for the raised highway. Executive director Henri Boulet says Louisiana already has $12 billion in backlogged road projects, so he’s looking to get his hands on new money—fines and other funds related to the Macondo spill. Once a federal court decides on the amount, 80 percent of the fines levied against BP will be deposited into a federal trust fund created by the RESTORE Act, signed in July 2012. That money will be divided up among the five Gulf states affected by the spill. Boulet says the RESTORE Act stipulated that some of the money “be used to help communities build up their resiliency to sustain themselves for the next generation.” Raising LA 1, he says, fits that bill. “I’m monitoring that on behalf of my community, and pushing for investment in LA 1,” he says.

The amount of money doled out through the RESTORE Act will depend on how U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, in New Orleans, rules. Barbier recently set a trial date for January, to decide Clean Water Act penalties against BP. He has yet to rule on competing claims of how much oil was spilled in the 2010 disaster, or on whether the company was grossly negligent, which will determine how much BP will ultimately pay. The tally could range from about $5 billion, says Boulet, to $21 billion in a gross negligence ruling. Locals are in the odd position of in a way hoping for a gross negligence ruling against a corporation they rely on, take pride in, and feel deeply connected to. “You know, no one’s wishing BP bad luck for the higher amount,” Boulet says, “but if indeed they’re found grossly negligent—you would look at the higher amount being assessed.”

So money from BP’s civil fines for a historically disastrous deepwater blowout will go toward shoring up infrastructure threatened by sea level rise so that oil companies, including BP, can keep drilling for oil—the burning of which contributes to sea level rise—and thereby risk another spill.

Boulet doesn’t see the contradiction: “Certainly we don’t want another oil spill. But I think the federal government has taken necessary, very strict precautions to make sure that’s not going to happen again.” Boulet says that although it’s much more expensive to drill to meet new safety demands, that’s “as it should be.”

Keith Jones is less confident that the new safety measures will prove adequate. Since his son, Gordon, died in the Deepwater Horizon rig fire, the Baton Rouge lawyer has been lobbying for better safety measures in offshore drilling. “I think that now that everything’s settled down since the Deepwater Horizon, nobody pays any attention to what they do on those rigs. The government doesn’t have nearly enough supervision, doesn’t really have the authority to do enough supervision.” He believes oil companies are once again expanding into deeper, more dangerous territory unchecked. “I wish I was of the opinion that it won’t happen again. But I haven’t seen anything to indicate to me that things have changed very much offshore.” Jones’ son was working as a mud engineer when he died. Jones acknowledges the nation’s dependence on offshore oil and respects the local families and workers who take pride, like his son did, in the skill and determination it takes to accomplish offshore energy production. But he does not trust the big oil players to act with the best outcome for the community in mind. In the years since the blowout, the spill, and his son’s death, Jones says he’s followed court proceedings carefully and seen officials with BP, rig operator Transocean, and oil services giant Halliburton, which was also working on the Deepwater Horizon, testify “with an astonishing lack of remorse.”

After the 2010 spill, BP was barred from bidding on offshore leases for Gulf oil and gas. But now the company has returned, after agreeing to stricter guidelines for corporate governance and an independent monitor for five years. In the latest federal auction of offshore leases, BP won $41.6 billion worth of contracts to explore and drill the Gulf. But a lawsuit filed last year by the New Orleans area levee board seeks reparations for damage done, naming nearly 100 oil and gas companies and demanding that they either fill in the canals they dredged or pay for the increased risk those canals have caused. The argument is that without the marsh as buffer, New Orleans faces more danger of storm surge. The burden of that added risk to property, infrastructure, and human life warrants payback. The federal agency responsible for offshore drilling at the time of the spill has been restructured into two bodies, one responsible for safety and permitting and one for contracts, keeping regulation and money separate.

The bayou communities are inclined to a cooperative approach with the industry. Local officials point out that it’s in any oil company’s best interest to preserve the land, because it protects its pipelines, rigs, and bases of operation. Coastal restoration projects will also be going for their share of RESTORE Act funds flowing from BP fines, and with aggressive action, says Port Fourchon’s Chiasson, it may be possible to save a lot of marsh. But for now, southeast Louisiana residents all seem to know one statistic by heart: The wetlands disappear at a rate of a football field per hour. Even with the visual aid of the 100-yard field, it’s hard to comprehend. Government agencies constantly remove names from coastal maps; more than 30 names were erased last year alone. Barrier islands wash away. Bays, without land surrounding them, do not warrant a distinct identity; they are simply absorbed by the continuum of open water. That place you liked to fish? It’s no longer a place; it has no name.

It’s an awkward balance for people along LA 1 to strike, the combination of the salty reality that the marshes where they now work and play may be doomed to become open water, good for nothing but a route for industry. BP fines and settlement money hold potential to get them the raised road they want, with healthy marsh underneath. Regardless, Port Fourchon is the main argument for holding on to the communities along LA 1 and the bits of land still surrounding them. Ted Falgout, the port’s former longtime director, says the focus should not be on oil or fishing: “Those are not the things that are at risk. What’s at risk is our ability to live here. If we go on worrying only about the critters and the oil, we are going to fall into the sea.”