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I didn't want to write this diary.  I figured Jerome or one of the other energy experts around here would tackle it.

But, more than a week since the Fortune article appeared, no one here has addressed what is called The Next Energy Crisis.

Maybe it's because the issue of coastal erosion in Louisiana is mixed up with so many other issues--Katrina, fisheries, the Corps of Engineers.  But the hard truth is if state and federal programs to restore Louisiana's coast are not accelerated, $3-a-gallon gasoline is going to be a fond memory.  Soon.

Come see.

Port Fourchon, where Lafourche Parish meets the Gulf of Mexico, is America's energy choke point.  Facilities at the port itself process a fifth of the oil and natural gas America consumes.  

Moreover, it is the center of a network of pipelines that stretches an estimated 14,000 miles, supplying half of the nation's gasoline refineries and two of the government's five Strategic Petroleum Reserve storage sites.

The size of this "spaghetti bowl" of pipelines is estimated because not every oil and pipeline company did extensive mapping when the lines were laid.  That wasn't so much of a problem in the 1930s and 40s, when the wetlands of South Louisiana seemed eternal.

Since then, though, we have lost a land mass bigger than the state of Delaware to erosion caused by, among other things, access canals carved through the marshes by oil companies looking for ever more drilling sites.

Now, with over a football field of land turning to open water every 30 seconds, those pipelines, laid on (semi) solid land, are in open water, unsupported and vulnerable to breakage, unmarked and vulnerable to being struck by boats.

While few oil and pipeline company executives are willing to talk about it, the current state of the spaghetti bowl is dire.  Clifford Smith of pipeline engineering firm T. Baker Smith says,

"Accidents are happening because of the changes in topography.  It's a big thing."

and Ed Landgraf of Shell Pipeline says bluntly,

"National energy security can be maintained only if Louisiana's coast is restored and preserved."

Landgraf isn't exactly correct.  If the country decides that coastal restoration is too expensive (current estimated cost:  $50 billion), we have the option to rebuild the facilities of Port Fourchon farther inland, perhaps at Lafayette or Baton Rouge.

Processing facilities at Port Fourchon are valued as built at $50 billion, so replacing them would be as costly as the estimates for coastal restoration.  But that valuation doesn't include most of the pipeline network.  Rebuilding and rerouting that network is estimated to cost an additional $30-$60 billion.

Or we could just do nothing and try and get by on the system as it stands today.  Which will work for a while.  Unless there's a storm in the wrong place.  Or a major accident.

In the event of a major disruption to the transmission pipeline network in South Louisiana, you can expect the price of gasoline to double within days.  And stay there.

This is not a "someday" issue.  Looking at where sea levels will be in fifty years is certainly frightening, but the crisis of Louisiana's coast and the danger to the energy supply is immediate.  Congress has to face the choice now:  drastically accelerate efforts to rebuild the coast or start massive investment in a new "oil city" inland.

Being a resident of South Louisiana and a big shrimp fan, I'm prejudiced toward the restoration option.  Perhaps Kossacks will share that prejudice when they consider that the bulk of the cost of rebuilding Port Fourchon and the pipeline network will go to a very few oil services companies like, say, Halliburton.

Some end notes:

Muchos propos to Garland Robinette of WWL Radio, who, in a meeting of Time/Life editors in New Orleans a while back, was asked the most important issue facing the state.  Without hesitating, Robinette said, "Coastal erosion, and what it's going to do to the energy infrastructure."  

He laid out the particulars of the problem and found the editors disbelieving.  To their credit, they sent Fortune's Nicholas Varchaver to investigate, which resulted in the "Next Energy Crisis" story.

Hopefully, WWL will soon have available on its podcast page the two shows last week in which he explored this issue in depth.

America's Wetland is probably the best single resource for information on coastal erosion and restoration in Louisiana.

I've never asked for recs here, but I'm going to for this diary.  Or for someone more knowledgeable to highlight this issue.  This isn't one we can duck, folks.

Originally posted to Crashing Vor on Sun Aug 12, 2007 at 12:27 PM PDT.


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