Louisiana's industry crisis

Oct. 2, 2017
An indispensable state for US oil and gas operations continues to disappear at an alarming rate.

Matt Zborowski
Assistant Editor

An indispensable state for US oil and gas operations continues to disappear at an alarming rate.

Home to the US offshore industry's onshore hub as well as active drilling and production, Louisiana's 3 million acres of wetlands are shrinking by 75 sq km/year, the US Geological Survey estimates. The oil and gas industry, which is both blamed in part for the accelerated erosion and owns a large portion of that land, finds itself in a precarious position. That includes ConocoPhillips subsidiary Louisiana Land & Exploration Co. LLC, which has 636,000 acres there.

"Some of the fastest rates of wetlands loss in the world are occurring on its property," Sarah K. Mack, Tierra Resources LLC president and chief executive officer, told OGJ while discussing how her firm is working with industry to conserve the region.

"So not only is ConocoPhillips losing an asset, but it's also losing coastal protections that shield the communities where its staff lives, oil and gas infrastructure including pipelines, and [US offshore hub] Port Fourchon," which is "one of the most at-risk areas," she explained.

Practical solutions

ConocoPhillips thus teamed with Tierra in 2012 to help stem the tide. Based in New Orleans, Tierra leads research, development, and monetization of carbon found in coastal wetland ecosystems such as estuaries, mangroves, and salt marshes. For the ConocoPhillips project, Tierra determined that mangroves would be the best weapon after identifying up to 40,000 acres in Terrebone and Lafourche parishes as having ideal conditions for the species.

Mangroves thrive in saline environments and migrated to Louisiana naturally as the climate warmed. Their complex root systems protect against erosion and storm surge-related flooding. Tierra elected to disperse mangrove propagules over the land by crop duster, allowing them to spread much faster and farther than they would have on their own.

Tierra continues to monitor the area and expand the project with the goal of starting an industry-led initiative. However, the broader task of conserving Louisiana's wetlands remains a difficult proposition involving various stakeholders, challenges in financing, and both proven and unproven scientific solutions. "On many levels in regard to coastal restoration, the science is there and on others it's not," Mack said. "But it's much easier to protect the wetlands you already have than to try to build new ones."

She noted that dredging and river diversion are far more expensive than planting mangroves, which only thrive in certain areas. While sediment diversions are part of the state's coastal master plan, the bureaucratic process can be burdensome and time-consuming. "And that's one of the reasons we really like working with oil and gas...Because we're able to implement coastal restoration privately, we're able to get boots on the ground much faster," she said. Mack praised ConocoPhillips for its in-house coastal and remote sensing experts. After collecting 120,000 acres of intricate lidar, Tierra was able to incorporate sea level rise and subsidence so that it would know which areas are converting to open water fastest. She said Tierra hopes to partner with more oil and gas companies.

Many responsible parties

Parishes over the past few years have sought damages for the erosion by suing several long-time operators in the region, including Louisiana Land & Exploration Co. and Chevron Corp. Chevron, which pledges continued support for the region, noted in a statement that "management of Louisiana's natural resources involves a complex framework of issues that can only be addressed by a collaborative effort."

Beyond oil and gas activity, the numerous causes to wetland loss include sea-level rise, subsidence, and navigation. Mack explained that one of the biggest culprits was levying the Mississippi River, a move that deprived the coast of much-needed freshwater sediments and nutrients. Meanwhile, Louisiana collected revenue from operators over the years but failed to enforce permits.

It's an intricate situation, Mack said, because many people on the Louisiana coast work for the industry directly or indirectly. It's also a big revenue source for the state. She added, "Louisiana's oil and gas and wetlands really contribute to the national economy, and therefore we should be getting a larger percentage of the revenue back toward restoration."