Blue Water legacy
Over the years, the Blue Water pipeline became an intricate part of the gas-gathering network that supplied America's growing energy needs. "Your main gas supply for the whole United States was coming off of the Blue Water system at one point in time," said George Benoit, a pipeline manager for Tennessee Gas. "This pipeline system, the remarkable part of it is its operating flexibility. . . . If there's a break in any one of the lines, you can move the gas back another way." This flexibility became increasing vital as the system aged, as various structural problems arose, and as the impact from hurricanes increased.
In the late 1970s, the most prolific natural gas production platform in Tennessee Gas's history, South Marsh Island block 61-C, began delivering gas into the Blue Water system. This single platform had an estimated production of about 90 bcf of gas annually—enough gas to feed the city of Boston for a year. The Blue Water system helped Tennessee Gas become the third-largest gas producer in the Gulf. The company produced 332 bcf of gas/year, more than the annual gas consumption of all of New England, one of the major markets for its gas.
By the end of the 1970s, the pipeline gathering systems along the Gulf Coast had evolved into a central part of America's energy supplies. The oil and gas produced offshore flowed through a massive pipeline network that was buried under thousands of miles of canals dug through the wetlands. Facilities onshore processed, refined, and moved these supplies to market outlets across America. Coastal Louisiana's wetlands absorbed the environmental impacts of developing this important economic system for the nation. The issue of coastal land loss that would envelop in the ensuing decades not only threatened the critical wetland ecosystems, but also made the pipeline network increasingly vulnerable to environmental changes.
Growth of the Gulf network
Three decades after the end of World War II, the offshore industry in the GoM had evolved into a mature enterprise with sophisticated drilling, production, and transportation technologies, and a vast network of interconnecting pipelines. The Gulf produced abundant natural gas that helped fuel America's economy. From 1956 to 1971, gas production from the southern Louisiana region increased more than five-fold, and reserves more than doubled.
Pipelines became the key to expanding this offshore gas gathering system. Twenty-six interstate gas pipeline companies had lines running into Louisiana to carry gas to homes and businesses across the nation. By 1980, the Louisiana Gulf Coast produced approximately a third of the nation's gas supplies. Oil pipelines also expanded during this period. More than 20% of oil produced in the Gulf had been transported by barge in 1966. By the early 1970s that number had declined to 3%, meaning pipelines accounted for the transportation of almost all of the oil and gas produced in the Gulf. All told, the industry had by the 1970s built approximately 145 major pipelines and countless feeder lines through the wetlands of coastal Louisiana to support the booming offshore industry.
The emergence of the environmental movement and three specific offshore oil spills raised serious environmental questions about expanding the offshore oil and gas industry and energy production near sensitive marine habitats. These spills included the Santa Barbara oil spill off California in 1969 and two in the GoM – at Main Pass and at Bay Marchand – in 1970.
Operating in the new era
Growing concerns over the health of coastal resources, wetlands, and wildlife prompted changes in regulations, business practices, technologies, and values. Scientific assessment of environmental impacts gradually became normal industry practice. According to Ray Galvin, who spent many years offshore Louisiana as a senior manager for Gulf Oil Corp. and Chevron U.S.A. Production Co., the two big oil spills in the GoM coupled with the blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel "led, I believe, [the federal government] to impose some of the quality standards and quality of process checking and process testing and equipment qualifications that came out of the space program . . . we dug in our heels and fought that quite a bit as an industry. And actually, overall, it ended up being very good for us."
With new national environmental policies and an emphasis on protecting environmental quality, industry began to recognize the need to better manage its environmental affairs. It sought to improve existing practices and methods – and its public image. As Dr. Casey Westell, Jr., Tenneco chief ecologist, and one of the first environmental scientists to work for the oil and gas industry, stated at the dawn of the environmental movement: "It's a different ball game now. Our methods of operating will continue to change . . . and concern for our environment – the air, water, and land we use – will always be in the forefront." The transition did not occur overnight, nor did the new laws strike an immediate balance between energy and the environment. Companies that produced oil and gas in the GoM realized the need to implement environmental management programs and early forms of nontechnical risk assessment into their business models and asset development portfolios.
New attitudes of the 1970s represented a transition for energy development in the Gulf. For several decades, industrial activities focused on maximizing the energy production potential in the offshore arena to build a nationally important energy system. Damages to the physical environment in the process were assumed to be an appropriate trade-off given the context of the postwar era and benefits of industry expansion to the larger national economy. New incentives, new laws, and a changing perspective on protecting wetlands and marine habitats encouraged stakeholders, including industry, to consider the ecological benefits as well as the economic benefits that these coastal systems provided. It would take some time for real innovations in wetland protection and ecological restoration to take shape, but the seeds were planted in the wake of the environmental age and the boom of the offshore expansion in the 1970s.
Jason P. Theriot, Ph.D., is an energy and environmental historian and consultant and a former Energy Policy Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. His research focuses primarily on the historical dynamics of oil and gas development, environmental policies, legacy litigation, and restoration activities in the Gulf Coast. He is the author of numerous publications on these topics, including the recently published American Energy, Imperiled Coast: Oil and Gas Development in Louisiana's Wetlands (LSU Press, 2014). More information is available atwww.jasontheriot.com.