Sinking Louisiana: A Major Threat To Billions In Oil Infrastructure


21 June 2017 | |

That Louisiana is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico is not news. Rising seas and coastline erosion have been working together for decades, but this sinking may well be happening faster than previously thought—threatening billions and billions of Louisiana oil infrastructure.

This is the central idea of a new study from Tulane University that set out to map the Louisiana coastline using new methods of measuring subsidence—the technical term for sinking land. The outcome of the measurements is an average 9 mm of wetlands lost to the sea every year. This compares to previous estimates of an annual subsidence rate between 1 to 6 mm.

The authors warn that there are differences in the rate of sinking at different locations along the coast, but overall, we are already seeing what other authors in earlier studies have estimated as the worst-case scenario for the future.

There is grim irony in the fact that according to the Tulane University researchers, the main reason for the accelerated sinking is the loss of sediment carried by the Mississippi River to the coast because of the numerous levees aimed at protecting cities and industrial infrastructure from flooding. Now, Gulf waters are advancing, and it is making flood threats more serious as natural defenses such as marshes are being swallowed by the sea. So is oil infrastructure.

A 2016 report from Bloomberg warned that the oil industry is having to deal with US$100 billion worth of infrastructure on the Louisiana coast that is being threatened by the combined forces of rising sea levels and subsidence. The report cited a study from America’s Wetlands Foundation and Entergy Corp, which found that annual losses for Big Oil already amounted to US$14 billion. This could balloon to a total US$350 billion by 2030.

The Washington Post notes in its report of the new study that the Louisiana Legislature recently approved funding of US$50 billion for the restoration of the coastline, but this is nowhere near enough, it would seem—all the more so given that the US$50 billion will be spent over a period of 50 years, and four of the five most expensive projects in this master plan are focused on marsh creation—the once natural defenses of the coast against the corrosive effect of seawater.

The situation certainly looks like it requires urgent measures and this makes accurate measurement of the sinking rates all the more important. One of the study authors, Torbjörn Törnqvist, told the Washington Post that there is more work to be done in this direction—the map that the team outlined based on their measurement showed the big picture, he said, rather than specific subsidence rates at different locations.

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