How Port Fourchon is adapting to a downturn in the oil industry

PORT FOURCHON, La. (KLFY) – Port Fourchon has seen busier days. It should be crowded with big rigs and work trucks. Instead, LA-3090, the main road in and out of the port, looks like a lazy coastal highway.

Port Fourchon serves as a base of operations for about 250 oil and gas companies. So when oil prices are down - like they are now - the 1,200 acre port feels the effects.

Port Fourchon is located about three hours away from Lafayette in Lafourche Parish – right on the Gulf. Chett Chiasson is the executive director of the Greater Lafourche Port Commission, which runs the port.

"We service about 90% of all the deepwater activity in the entire U.S. Gulf of Mexico," Chiasson said.

Oil and gas companies lease property from the port. Supply vessels from the port deliver water, groceries, liquid mud, pipe, and other equipment to offshore rigs and platforms.

When times are good, about 400 boats go into the Gulf every day. And helicopters from the port and the port commission's airport in Galliano fly 15,000 workers offshore a month.

When oil prices were high, port companies employed around 5,000 workers.

All of those numbers have decreased because of the downturn in the oil and gas industry. Port commissioners saw the trend in late 2014 and decided to take action.

Chiasson said port companies have laid off around 400 or 500 workers since the downturn. He said commissioners reduced rent for port tenants by 20 percent until the end of this year and will re-evaluate the situation at that time.

"It has done well for us," Chiasson explained. "We haven't lost a tenant and we're keeping our fingers crossed for that. That it doesn't happen because we're in it for the long haul just like they are."

Since the port sits on the Gulf, you can't help but admire the natural beauty of the landscape. Port Fourchon is known for its good fishing and crabbing, and is open to the public. Chiasson said there are more than 600 offshore rigs and platforms within a 40-mile radius of the port - and each one is an artificial reef. But as of last week, there were only 20 rigs operating in the Gulf.

We found Jory McKenzie of Cankton, La., fishing at the port on the day of our visit. He's been working at the port part-time and he still has a job offshore. Others haven't been so lucky.

"I know a lot of good people that lost their jobs," McKenzie said.

McKenzie has worked in the oilfield for about 15 years and worries about his job, too. "Yeah all the time," he said. "I mean who wouldn't. I mean slow like it is. They got some companies that are filing for bankruptcy. Some are just shutting their doors."

It's lunchtime at Moran's Marina near the port entrance. Port workers can get a plate lunch engage in some good conversation. The marina – which has a gas station, restaurant, store, and motel – has seen business drop since the oil downturn.

"There used to be a lot more steady traffic. You hear stories from the guys, the layoffs, the cutbacks. Things like that," said Kristin Fagan, the marina's assistant manager.

She said the downtown affects everyone – from the oil company executives and workers – to store owners, mechanics, hairdressers, and others who rely on business from oil workers and their families.

"A lot of companies have held on and tried as long as they could to keep their employees. It's just people don't realize how important it is," she said. "There are a lot of stories of guys that have been with their company for 15 to 30 years and had to be let go."

"It's certainly a concern and we feel for those families that have been impacted by this," Chiasson said of the port workers who have been let go.

And as the industry rebounds, port leaders say they'll be there for companies that want to grow or expand their business. The hope for everyone is that it rebounds sooner, rather than later.

A 2014 economic report found that 11,512 jobs in Louisiana were directly related to the port and its operations.

The port commission was established in 1960, but the port didn't start rapidly growing until the mid-1990s when Congress opened up deep water drilling and production in the Gulf.

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