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Oil and gas built Port Fourchon; now the seaport is finding its role in a future without it

Port Fourchon aerial photo
Greater Lafourche Port Commission
A bird's eye view of Port Fourchon, Louisiana's southernmost port situated on the Gulf of Mexico.

Travel south to where Louisiana’s land gives way to the sea, and then keep going. It might feel like you’re driving to the end of the world, traveling across a tall, winding bridge above broken marsh to reach the state’s southernmost port.

Upon arrival, you’re first greeted by elevated fishing camps before passing a long stretch of marsh built with dredging. Beyond that lies the industry, the port’s customers. Massive warehouses and wide slips hold large ocean-faring ships. Towering storage tanks hold fuel and water for the vessels to carry to oil and gas platforms miles offshore.

As one of the country’s premier oil and gas seaports, Port Fourchon plays an essential role in maintaining one-sixth of the nation's oil supply. Its clients service 95% of the Gulf of Mexico’s fossil fuel production. But the port is also increasingly threatened by global warming, driven in large part by the industries it serves.

That was evidenced by Hurricane Ida. Nearly a year later, the storm’s fingerprints remain visible. Some warehouses have yet to be repaired and wooden wharves sit broken. The port’s 1,700 acres sit right on the Gulf of Mexico, making it the first to feel the effects of worsening hurricanes and accelerated sea level rise. That’s on top of coping with the state’s ongoing land loss crisis.

The environment surrounding the oil and gas port is personal to Chiasson and much of the port staff. It’s where they grew up. Chiasson himself is a Larose native, who now lives about 30 miles north of Fourchon in Cut Off. He’s witnessed the coast erode.

Chett Chiasson Port fourchon
Halle Parker
Port Fourchon Executive Director Chett Chiasson stands in front of the port's emergency command center after touring the area on July 25, 2022.

“I'm 45. I've watched it, for 45 years, wash away,” Chiasson said. “Although we are very pro-industry and pro-energy, we're environmentalists because we grew up that way.”

Their connection to the local wetlands drove them to build more with sediment they dredged to maintain the port, bolstering the habitat around for local species and flood protection. Now, for the first time, they’ve begun thinking about their industry’s role in climate change, and they’re reimagining the port’s future as the world looks to transition away from fossil fuels.

That starts with being transparent about greenhouse gas emissions, reports that have long been lacking in the maritime industry.

Globally, the maritime industry is responsible for about 3% of all planet-warming emissions, according to estimates from the International Maritime Organization. But industry experts said greenhouse gas emissions weren’t a consideration on ships, something that’s only begun to change in the past decade.

Port Fourchon is one of the first seaports in the U.S. to begin filling in the information gaps.

Port Fourchon coastal wetlands park
Greater Lafourche Port Commission
An aerial view of Port Fourchon's Coastal Wetlands Park, which is 100 acres of wetlands built with material dredged for the industry to maintain habitat and create opportunities for eco-tourism.

Four months ago, the staff installed sensors across the port to conduct real-time air monitoring, track emissions at different locations and see their origin.

Chiasson said they’re still gathering that data and have yet to set any firm decarbonization goals. A plan will come in time, and SailPlan, the same company that installed the sensors, will also look to help the port strategize after establishing a baseline.

“Before you start optimizing, you’ve got to understand your problem, and the opportunities to optimize what you can fix and what you can't fix,” said Jacob Ruytenbeek, the company’s founder.

The monitoring represents a break from the past. Dan Hubbell, who focuses on shipping emissions for the Ocean Conservancy, said air monitors still aren’t widely used. Instead, companies rely on estimates based on how much fuel their ships use, which often leads to undercounting.

air monitor port fourchon sail plan
A contractor installs an air monitor on a utility pole in Port Fourchon to measure greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants in real time.

Ruytenbeek said the maritime industry faces increasing pressure to lower emissions after neglecting for decades to do any tracking. And the oil and gas industry that Port Fourchon’s clients serve is in the same boat.

If offshore service companies show they’re lowering their footprint, they become attractive to bigger oil and gas companies. And seaports like Fourchon can help their customers do it.

Within the port itself, cutting carbon emissions means electrifying things when possible, from the vehicles and equipment the port uses to building electrical hookups for the ships themselves to use when docked. That option – to use “shorepower" – came online at Fourchon two years ago through a partnership with Entergy Corporation.

“That's the first thing on my mind that would lower emissions is by having everyone, as soon as they get in, plug in. Don't use your generators,” Chiasson said.

One study published earlier this year by the University Marine Advisory Services suggested Fourchon in particular would be one of the best ports to start electrifying due to several factors, including its customers’ shipping routes and high fuel consumption. Some companies have opted in, but Chiasson said the port hasn’t mandated it. Instead, port officials are starting to look at ways to incentivize it or help pay for the installation.

Hubbell, with the Ocean Conservancy, noted ports and companies could take that even further by possibly crafting mobile charging stations to send to ships idling offshore.

For the ships themselves, emissions will be difficult to eliminate until alternative, zero-carbon fuels like hydrogen or ammonia become available.

ships harvey gulf port fourchon
Halle Parker
Two ships sit docked at Port Fourchon as a storm rolls in on Monday, July 25, 2022.

A few have already started to lower their emissions, like Harvey Gulf. The offshore marine supply company works out of Port Fourchon and owns five ships that run off a mix of renewable liquefied natural gas — typically collected from landfills or farms where the decomposing material creates methane — and battery power.

They’re also some of the first U.S. supply boats to have real-time monitors installed on their ships' stacks to track their emissions and run more efficiently, saving their customers money on fuel.

“It makes my vessel more marketable,” said Chad Verret, Harvey Gulf’s executive vice president for LNG operations. Increased efficiency also lowers upkeep costs.

LNG burns cleaner than traditional diesel engines, Verret said, while the company waits for other fuels to come online. When that happens, Hubbell noted that ports will have a role in ensuring the infrastructure is available on site for ships to refuel using hydrogen or ammonia.

Beyond lowering its own footprint, Port Fourchon stands on the precipice of a new economic driver: offshore renewable energy. The same companies servicing the Gulf’s oil and gas production have the tools to build massive wind farms aimed at replacing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels for power.

“Offshore wind is real. I believe we could see a project coming in a couple of years,” Chiasson said. “I didn't think it was gonna be this quick and this much interest, … but that industry is taking notice of Fourchon.”

The wind giants that started building on the East Coast are already familiar with Fourchon’s customers, and now they’re coming south. As oil and gas are phased out, that means offshore wind could enhance the long-term viability of companies created with the fossil fuel industry in mind — and spur a rebrand.

“We're changing that narrative to be: we are in an energy service port,” Chiasson said. “Whatever energy that is, that's what we're gonna be involved in.”

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.