Ask anyone on the bayou if they know about Port Fourchon, and you’ll no doubt get a yes. “That’s where my daddy works.”
“That’s where we launch our boat.” “That’s where oil comes from.”
But when you ask the average person how Port Fourchon works or what the Greater Lafourche Port Commission does, the answer is not so clear. Most people don’t know what a great gem we have here in our community, so here is a brief rundown: who we are, what we do, how we’ve worked our way into being one of the nation’s most important economic engines and why it is vital to keep that engine running.
The Greater Lafourche Port Commission is a political subdivision of the state of Louisiana, formed in 1960 and governed by a nine-member board, the only elected port commission in the state of Louisiana.
We have 37 employees that do an outstanding job of handling the day-to-day operations, maintenance and administration of Port Fourchon and the South Lafourche Leonard Miller Jr. Airport. The commission operates predominantly as a “landlord” providing basic infrastructure to its tenants.
We construct roads and waterlines, dredge channels, construct bulkheads and provide basic land at Port Fourchon.
We provide basic airport infrastructure like a runway, parallel taxiway, road access, waterlines, etc. Once the basic infrastructure is in place, the commission leases the property to businesses looking to serve the needs of industry.
At both the port and now the airport, the commission operates with its mission statement in mind: to facilitate the economic growth of the communities in which it operates by maximizing the flow of trade and commerce. We do this to grow our economy and preserve our environment and heritage.
Port Fourchon sits at the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico and is easily accessible from any area in the Gulf. Located near the end of La. 1, Port Fourchon is in the center of one of the richest and most progressive industrial areas in the Gulf region.
We are constantly expanding to meet the needs of business and industry. Under the direction of the commission, the port is fortunate to have the knowledgeable leadership, available land and irrefutable logistical advantage that enable it to be the nation’s premier port for the continued support of oil-and-gas activity in the Gulf of Mexico.
Port Fourchon has grown from humble beginnings in 1960 into 1,700 acres in the most efficient location to service the needs of the Gulf oil-and-gas industry, with state-of-the-art facilities that exist nowhere else in the world.
The port’s tenants provide services to 90 percent of all Gulf deepwater activity and about 50 percent of drilling rigs in the entire U.S. Gulf, both shallow and deepwater. This activity, coupled with Port Fourchon being the service base for the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, means that Port Fourchon plays a strategic role in furnishing this country with about 18 percent of its entire oil supply.
The South Lafourche Leonard Miller Jr. Airport in Galliano has proven to be a valuable element of the transportation system of Lafourche Parish and the state. Recognizing the potential major importance of the SLA in providing air transportation services to support the continued development of Port Fourchon and offshore mineral exploration and production, the Port Commission acquired the SLA in 2001. The GLPC also acquired the 1,200 acres surrounding the airport, which is open for industrial development and industrial housing. The airport has rapidly increased aircraft traffic since completion of its 6,500 foot runway with 75,000 pound wheel-load capacity, resulting in a 300 percent increase in jet traffic. We continue to expand the airport, with plans to add new navigational aids, hangars and taxiway.
In January 2010, after working for the commission since September 2005, I was afforded the opportunity to become the executive director, only the second person to do so since the port’s inception. I knew it would be a challenge, with the tough economic times the country had been in, all of the construction projects we were involved in at the port and airport and the planning of the port’s 50th anniversary celebration, but never did I imagine what would be coming. Obviously, I am talking about the terrible tragedy of April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 men and causing the worst oil spill in our nation’s history.
Port Fourchon was at the epicenter of the response, recovery and subsequent cleanup effort for this disaster. Since facilities at the port were the base for the Deepwater Horizon, the evacuated rig workers were brought to Port Fourchon en route to getting back to their families.
With that began the influx of media and all that entails. Once it was realized that there was a major problem with the well and the oil was being emitted uncontrolled, we were tasked with preparation.
We began working with Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph and her emergency preparedness staff to formulate a plan of action for protecting the parish’s coastline and keeping the vital economic activity at Port Fourchon operational throughout cleanup and waterway closures.
We spent countless hours meeting and planning, coordinating breach closures and ways to continue keeping Belle Pass, the port’s main waterway, open even though oil was approaching. When we knew that it was only a matter of time before we saw oil impacting our coast, we offered the commission’s Port Fourchon Operations Center for response collaboration efforts.
At that point, our Ops Center became the Lafourche Parish Emergency Operations Center for the oil-spill response. Our approach to the response was not “us against them,” but “How can we help?” That proved to be very successful. The collaborative group was comprised of the United States Coast Guard, BP, Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, Louisiana National Guard, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Lafourche Parish Government, Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office, Port Fourchon Harbor Police and Port Commission executives.
Just when we were beginning to get a handle on the oil spill, the president and his administration decided to issue an arbitrary six-month moratorium on drilling and permitting in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico.
This action brought our region, a region of constant growth and record low unemployment that was not seeing much negative impact from the struggling national economy, to a screeching halt. Knowing that the tenants of Port Fourchon were going to be severely impacted by the federal government’s careless actions, the Port Commission proactively chose to freeze escalation fees and reduce basic land rental rates by 30 percent for one year.
This action served its purpose effectively, even though it meant millions of dollars of lost revenue for the port commission, because it helped our port tenants, especially the small, growing companies, to have a little breathing room to develop their financial strategies and to cope with the sudden moratorium-induced loss of current and future business. It was scary to many of us when the cranes stopped moving in Fourchon. We wanted to let our tenants know that we were right there with them in the trenches, fighting against the one-two punches of oil spill and moratoriums.
The moratorium was lifted on Oct. 12, 2010, and despite a horde of new regulations, rules, processes and acronyms, still no permits were issued for deepwater drilling. Moratorium became “permitorium.”
To this day, permit issuances for both deepwater and shallow water activities remain few and far between. Based on the Department of Interior’s own statistics, permits for deepwater activities are 40 percent off the mark, shallow-water permits are 60 percent down, and overall turnaround time for all permits is 40 percent slower. I, for one, believe that this is unacceptable.
These permitting issues that continue to inhibit the oil-and-gas industry have a cascading effect on this nation as a whole, not just “Big Oil,” as the Obama administration would say. It starts at the top with the oil-and-gas companies, then gets transferred through the supply chain.
The industry purchases supplies, equipment, high-end technology, geological and other services from vendors in every corner of the United States. It reaches each household in some form or fashion. The downturn in energy exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico has affected not only Port Fourchon but the entire country.
Because of the importance of the oil-and-gas industry to our way of life, the commission helped organize the Gulf Economic Survival Team. This organization, through the leadership of Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle, has been instrumental in facilitating what progress has been made on the permitting front. GEST and its Executive Director Lori Leblanc must be applauded as they have brought industry executives and BOEMRE staff together in an attempt to work out the regulatory/permitting issues. There is a still huge “activity gap” between the regulatory regime’s willingness and ability to issue much-needed permits and the oil-and-gas industry’s capabilities to invest in the energy security of our nation.
According to a study commissioned by GEST, if the bureau could close the “activity gap,” 2012 could see 230,000 American jobs, $44 billion added to the U.S. gross domestic product, $12 billion in tax and royalty revenues, 400,000 barrels more of oil produced per day, and a reduction of $15 billion in imported oil costs to the nation. In a time in this country when we have a jobs problem, a revenue problem, a spending problem and an energy problem, the answer is clear. Issue the permits now! There are thousands of workers in Port Fourchon who just want to see the cranes moving again.
Obviously, the last two years for the commission, Port Fourchon, and its tenants have been a roller-coaster ride. Personally, it has been an enormous learning experience. From federal, state, and local agency head visits to television interviews and testifying at congressional hearings, the first two years of my tenure as executive director have molded the future and set a path for what is to come.
We at the commission stand ready and able to tackle any challenge that comes our way.
We do this with the mindset of what is best for our community. That is why in looking toward the future, we plan to continue to expand Port Fourchon and the South Lafourche Leonard Miller Jr. Airport.
The issues we currently face will be resolved, and we stand poised to capitalize on the activity that will follow. We will continue to support our tenants in every way possible as a sign of appreciation for the prosperity that they have given to our community. Port Fourchon works. Period!
Chett Chiasson is the executive director of Port Fourchon.