P.2 ~ Offshore at 60: Remembering the Blue Water project

The Tennessee Gas-Columbia Gulf Blue Water Project was built between the 1960s and the 1970s and became one of the Gulf of Mexico's largest natural gas gathering systems. Its history offers clues about the challenges industry faced in the new offshore realm, and how companies and government agencies responded to new pressures and mandates to balance energy development with environmental protection.

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Blue Water expansion

In addition to the emergence of the environmental age in the 1970s, Americans grappled with the problems of the nation's first great energy crisis in the postwar era. The Arab oil embargo of 1973, energy price spikes, and energy supply shortages created a panic in America's petroleum-driven society. Severe natural gas shortages in the northeast and long lines at gasoline stations across the nation provided the impetus to increase domestic production offshore Louisiana.

In response, Tennessee Gas and Columbia Gulf redoubled efforts to develop and expand the Blue Water system. These expansion plans included completion of the main lines offshore, plus central processing facilities onshore at Pecan Island to the west and at Cocodrie to the east. Meeting environmental compliance and assessing environmental impacts had to be factored into project design and implementation. The Blue Water system expanded throughout the early 1970s, connecting to new reserves farther offshore at the Eugene Island, East Cameron, and West Cameron areas.

In the mid-1970s, Tennessee Gas and Columbia Gulf signed several contracts and negotiated multiple deals with other companies to expand the system's gas-gathering capabilities. Under the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970, the companies and the FPC had to provide an environmental assessment of the potential damages resulting from the new construction. In reference to possible negative impacts on the environment, the FPC's order granting approval for this project recommended that the company restrict construction to a period from Sept. 15 to early November in order to "avoid any interference with the brown and white shrimp migration into the area involved."

Shrimping had long been the primary driver of the local economy in southern Terrebonne Parish, even during the rise of oil and gas. The recommendation and subsequent compliance suggests that the industry and the agency recognized the needs of other resource users in the area, and determined that canal dredging in the wetlands during a particular season might negatively impact the shrimping industry.

Adapting to the new standards

To bring the new 36-in. diameter line ashore and tie it into the Cocodrie facility, contractors enlarged the existing flotation canal across the Terrebonne marshes to accommodate the heavy lay barges. Contractors laid the new line within 25 ft (7.6 m) of the original 26-in.diameter line and installed several bulkheads or plugs all along the canal, about one for every mile, to limit salt water intrusion from the Gulf and bank erosion from boat traffic. From the 1970s forward, use of existing pipeline corridors became an industry-preferred practice, which eliminated the need to build a new canal and thus reduced the footprint on the landscape. Using existing canals was viewed as a benefit to the environment; however, widening these canals allowed greater volumes of salt intrusion to enter into upper reaches of the wetland system, further altering habitat, particularly during storm surges. The FPC did not include a review of the environmental evaluation of the enlargement of this canal in its final opinion granting project approval. Apparently, companies did not need to submit additional information for areas "where construction will be on or immediately adjacent to an applicant's currently used right-of-way," unless landowners deemed otherwise.

The role of the US Army Corps of Engineers also changed significantly with the enactment of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Section 404 of the act required the agency to regulate all dredging and filling operations in wetland areas. Prior to the act, the Corps' main statutory function in coastal Louisiana waters was to regulate navigation and flood control. Up until that point, building pipelines through wetlands only required a Corps permit if the pipeline crossed navigable waterways.

With the new law, companies now had to contend with additional regulatory requirements for digging canals and laying pipeline across marshes, swamps, and barrier islands. The extensive permit review process added to the new constraints oil and gas companies faced in the wetlands in the 1970s and delayed project timelines. Imposing additional federal restrictions on wetland operations, particularly the dredging of canals for pipeline placement, could diminish and slow down oil and gas development activities offshore.

In addition, the local economy depended on oil and gas revenue from production sites throughout the coastal areas. Gaining access to these sites required dredging and filling operations in the wetlands. The state of Louisiana ultimately responded to the threats of additional federal regulations for environmental protection by establishing its own coastal use guidelines and permitting system in the early 1980s.

In a study of changes within governmental agencies in the early 1970s, authors Daniel A. Mazmanian and Jeanne Nienaber recognized that although new environmental reforms had changed the language of project proposals, agencies "were still bent on accomplishing their missions as prescribed decades ago." The mission of the Corps, for example, to maintain commercial interests along the Mississippi River through navigation and flood control policies and levee projects, conflicted with its new mandate to protect wetlands. The fact that wetlands were disappearing in part due to the Corps activities later became a major conflict of interest with the coastal restoration movement of the 1980s and 1990s. New governmental agencies specifically charged with environmental protection, such as the EPA and NOAA, had stronger incentives to push for protecting sensitive coastal areas, but they did not become fully invested in Louisiana coastal activities until the 1980s, when the emergence of land loss became a critical issue in the Gulf and eventually the nation.

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