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A straight line marks a pipeline beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
Straight lines of vegetation trace the path of a pipeline beneath the Gulf of Mexico (file photo).

Photograph by Skip O'Rourke, AP

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published May 25, 2010

Part of an ongoing series on the environmental impacts of the Gulf oil spill.

In addition to threatening wildlife, the thick oil oozing into U.S. Gulf Coast marshes (pictures) may be hitting the oil and gas industry where it hurts: in its own coastal infrastructure.

A vast network of pipes and platforms is woven into these wetlands, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill could literally expose them to potential ruptures and wreckage, experts say.

If oil kills off marsh plants, wetlands will turn to open water, putting the shallowly buried coastal pipelines at risk of ships strikes, storms, and corrosive salt water. Each rip means more leaking oil, costly repairs and replacements, and in some cases, new wetland-restoration projects.

(Related: "Nuclear Reactors, Dams at Risk Due to Global Warming.")

Even without the added threat of the Gulf of Mexico spill, Louisiana has the highest rate of human-induced coastal erosion in the country, according to the Texas-based Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.

"Certainly, if we are on a regular day losing marsh at an alarming rate, and our [energy] vulnerability increases everyday," the oil spill is "further complicating a crisis situation," said Ted Falgout, head of the energy-consulting firm Ted Falgout & Associates and former director of the Greater Lafourche Port Commission, which runs Louisiana's Port Fourchon, a major oil port on the Gulf of Mexico.

About 26,420 miles (42,520 kilometers) of onshore oil and natural gas pipelines snake through coastal counties between Mobile Bay (map), Alabama, and Galveston (map), Texas, according to Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for global change research at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, Louisiana.

"These facilities were built in [an] environment where people assumed the coast was more stable than it is now," Burkett said.

Perhaps due to that assumption, pipelines "weren't laid down with the intent of them being in open water," said Chris Macaluso, public information director for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana.

"Perfect Storm" of Wetland Loss

Macaluso added that "there is concern that [the oil spill] could exacerbate the already dire coastal-erosion issues in Louisiana." The state is losing about 25,000 acres (about 10,000 hectares) of wetlands a year—about a football field a minute, according to the Harte Research Institute study.

Much of that decline is due to oil-and-gas development in the Gulf of Mexico, which provides the U.S. with about 30 percent of its crude oil and 12 percent of its natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

For instance, the dredging of extensive canals—intended to hold pipes or ease ship passage—allows salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to creep in, poisoning the brackish marshes.

What's more, the Gulf coastline has been literally sinking as fossil fuels are pumped out of the earth, according to the Gulf research institute. And as the coast sinks, sea level rises—submerging and killing off marshes, according to the USGS. (See pictures of freshwater plants and animals.)

Add the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and you've got a "perfect storm of wetlands loss," Harte Research Institute director Larry McKinney said in an email. (See pictures of tar balls and a dead dolphin on the Gulf Coast.)

Even the ongoing oil spill cleanup operations may add insult to injury by further trampling the marsh, added USGS's Burkett, who formerly led the Louisiana Coastal Zone Management Program.

Erosion Endangering Oil Infrastructure

As wetlands wither, so do oil pipelines' protection.

Gregory Stone, director of Louisiana State University's Coastal Studies Unit, prepared a 2003 report for state agencies about how even mild hurricanes or tropical storms—which often make landfall along the Gulf Coast—could endanger oil-and-gas infrastructure in disappearing wetlands.

For one thing, without marshes to act as natural storm shields, waves have more room to gather steam, Stone said.

Such supercharged waves can loosen wetland soil around pipelines—and can whip a pipe around like a garden hose, he said. (See: "Hurricane Could Push Spilled Gulf Oil Into New Orleans.")

Furthermore, when Hurricane Katrina traversed the mouth of the Mississippi River in 2005, wave currents scoured sand and sediment from around the legs of a small oil platform, or drill pad (see a picture of a drill pad in Russian wetlands), causing it to fall over.

In addition to waves, a boat's propeller blades can be enough to spark an oil spill when pipelines become exposed.

That's what happened in 2002, when a boating incident ruptured a formerly buried pipe that had been exposed by erosion, according to a Louisiana State University report (PDF). The three-inch (eight-centimeter) hole spewed nearly a hundred thousand gallons (380,000 liters) of oil before divers patched it.

Boat-pipeline encounters can be just as deadly to humans as to flora and fauna. USGS's Burkett recalled a 1989 incident in which a fishing vessel struck an unburied natural gas line. The resulting fireball and its aftermath killed 11 of the 14 crew members.

The next year Burkett, then Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, testified before the U.S. Congress, calling for annual inspections to verify that all offshore pipelines are properly buried, as required by the Minerals Management Service, the U.S. agency charged with managing the country's offshore oil and natural gas.

More Than Just Pipelines at Risk

Wetland erosion is also making coastal highways more vulnerable, energy consultant Falgout noted. The highways are often the only ways in and out of the ports where Gulf pipelines terminate.

Prone to flooding, highways in eroding wetlands face "more of a threat to being cut [off] and rendered unavailable during storms," Falgout said.

Louisiana Highway 1—which is "extremely important to the ability of the energy industry to function efficiently"—is a perfect example, he said. For the purpose of oil distribution, the road is the only link between Port Fourchon and the rest of the world.

Roughly 18 miles (29 kilometers) of the highway need to be elevated, Falgout said.

According to the website of the LA 1 Coalition, a nonprofit advocating improvement of the highway, "if LA 1 were to be rendered inserviceable due to high water, even for just a few days, this nation's energy supply would be crippled."

Falgout is also concerned about the erosion of the Intracoastal Waterway, a major navigational corridor for energy-industry vessels. Without well-defined banks that act as points of reference, more vessels are grounding, increasing the likelihood for oil spills, he said.

"It's more than just the pipeline infrastructure or the energy facilities themselves," Falgout said. "It's the roads, the waterways, those things that are slowly washing into the sea."

Oil Industry: "Serpent Eating Its Own Tail"

"The serpent eating its own tail—that's the image I get when you're talking about the oil industry in coastal Louisiana," said Aaron Viles, campaign director for the New Orleans-based nonprofit Gulf Restoration Network.

Extensive development of resources "has been killing the Louisiana coast slowly for the past 40 years. ... Now we're seeing a likelihood [that] we're going to see massive marsh die-offs in a short time line"—die-offs that could in turn cripple the industry's own wetland arteries.

(See satellite pictures of the Gulf oil spill's early evolution.)

Of course, no one yet knows the extent of the current Gulf oil spill's coastal damage. But, energy consultant Falgout said the incident highlights the need to do a better job of protecting both the coast and its infrastructure against catastrophic events such as oil spills and hurricanes, for instance by adding fail-safe or backup technologies.

"A pound of cure? We're good at that," he said. "But the ounce of prevention—we miss it."

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