From 5,000 feet up, it’s difficult to make out where Louisiana’s coastline used to be. But follow the skeletal remains of decades-old oil canals, and you get an idea. Once, these lanes sliced through thick marshland, clearing a path for pipelines or ships. Now they’re surrounded by open water, green borders still visible as the sea swallows up the shore.
The canals tell a story about the industry’s ubiquity in Louisiana history, but they also signal a grave future: $100 billion of energy infrastructure threatened by rising sea levels and erosion. As the coastline recedes, tangles of pipeline are exposed to corrosive seawater; refineries, tank farms and ports are at risk.
“All of the pipelines, all of the things put in place in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s were designed to be protected by marsh,” said Ted Falgout, an energy consultant and former director of Port Fourchon.
Louisiana has an ambitious — and expensive — plan to protect both its backbone industry and its citizens from this threat but, with a $2 billion deficit looming next year, the cash-poor state can only do so much to shore up its sinking coasts. That means the oil and gas industry is facing new pressures to bankroll critical environmental projects — whether by choice or by force.
“The industry down there has relied on the natural environment to protect its infrastructure, and that environment is now unraveling,” said Kai Midboe, the director of policy research at the Water Institute of the Gulf. “They need to step up.”
Every year in Louisiana, more than 20 square miles of land is swallowed by the Gulf. At Port Fourchon, which services 90 percent of deepwater oil production, the shoreline recedes by three feet every month. Statewide, more than 610 miles of pipeline could be exposed over the next 25 years, according to one study by Louisiana State University and the Rand Corporation. Private industry owns more than 80 percent of Louisiana’s coast.
The land loss exacerbates another natural threat: storm-related flooding, like that affecting Baton Rouge now. As days of heavy rainfall caused water to overrun levees along several tributaries this week, Exxon Mobil Corp. began shutting units at its Baton Rouge refinery, the fourth-largest in the U.S. About 40,000 homes in southeastern Louisiana have been affected by the devastating flooding, and at least 11 people have died.