Fuel in the USA: Fourchon trying to push forward

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The price of oil is still down, which is causing many nervous and uneasy moments for folks in the marine industry.

But forecasters all seem to agree that things won’t be bottomed out forever.

That’s the faith that officials at Port Fourchon are relying upon to keep pushing forward into the future.

Expansion projects highlight the bright spots of current activity at the port, which services an estimated 90 percent of oil and gas exploration activity in the Gulf of Mexico each year.

Fourchon’s executive director Chett Chiasson said the reason for that expansion is the future – one which the port wants to be ready for as the industry recovers from its funk and begins to grow.

“Things are still moving along,” Chiasson said. “It’s slower than we’re used to and slower than what we’d like to be, but we do have companies that we’ve been talking to who are interested in property and are looking into the future. We’re planning aggressively for the next waves that are to come.”

And while waiting, folks on the Greater Lafourche Port Commission have taken continual steps to help those who do business with the port.

When the economic dip started, the commission voted to reduce rent by 20 percent – a move that was designed to help keep occupancy as high as possible during the slow time.

The initial reduction expired at the beginning of 2016, which prompted the commission to extend the reduction to Dec. 31.

The only way that will change is if the price of oil goes beyond $60 per barrel for a period of 60-straight days in the calendar year. If that happens, the rent reduction ends and prices go back to normal.

“The board made that decision (to extend the reduction) a couple months back, and I think it’s worked out well for a lot of people,” the port director said. “Companies are hanging on right now. We wanted to make sure that we helped them out as best as we could during their troubling times.”

Chiasson and his crew are also working diligently to expand the port’s capabilities.

The executive director said work is ongoing in Slip C, where bulkheads are being built. Chiasson said work is almost done on an 800-linear-foot bulkhead and a 950-foot bulkhead project is underway.

“We’re also doing maintenance dredging and using that material to complete the rest of the elevation in Slip C,” he said.

Looking toward the future, bucket dredging has just been completed in Slip D, and Chiasson is hopeful that hydraulic dredge work will begin there by the end of the year.

Studies are also ongoing to determine ways to deepen and widen the port so that it can service the biggest ships possible – a move being done to keep up with trends that show deeper waters will be explored in the future.

“We have to be prepared for that,” Chiasson said. “We’re looking to the future. We have to be in a position to continue to better serve the ultra-deep water that’s on the horizon – those big, massive vessels. We are on top of that and we will keep up with the pace.”

Lawmakers aim to keep up with that pace, as well. Several who visited the area recently have vowed to help the port grow into the future.

A delegation hosted by Congressman Steve Scalise (R-New Orleans) visited last month. Several politicians – Republican and Democrat alike – said they had a newfound appreciation for the port and the work it does to power the United States.

During the visit, the group visited the port, flew to an offshore rig and toured the port’s operations center. After the visit, the lawmakers answered questions from several local politicians and business leaders about where the industry may be headed in the future.

Those responses were positive, and the lawmakers said they’d work to ensure that Fourchon gets the backing it needs to thrive long-term.

“You have my support,” Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-Washington) said. “Times may be a little bit tough, but we will work and do whatever we need to do to help make sure that it turns back around.”

“It was a great experience,” Congressman Gene Green (D-Texas) added. “I’m glad to have been able to make this visit to this very special place that’s so vital to both our country and its future.”

But while the answers are promising, Chiasson said he’s continuing to proceed with cautious optimism.

Does Chiasson he thinks the price of oil will climb back and stabilize? Yes, he does.

But until it happens, workers are at risk of losing their jobs and livelihoods, and that’s a situation that has everyone on edge.

“We’re hopeful, but we’re aware of just how bad things are,” he said. “People are losing their jobs and it feels like there’s a new announcement every week of companies who are laying people off. We think it’s going to turn around. We’re confident that it will, actually. But we’re still worried about the present and what lies ahead.” •

Port Fourchon