Justin Nobel | Longreads | August 2017 | 8 minutes (2,051 words)

The United States is on the verge of an energy transformation. This spring the nation’s first offshore wind farm officially began powering homes and businesses on Block Island, in Rhode Island. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management maps show 12 areas that have been leased for potential offshore wind development along the East Coast, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Cape Cod, and a thirteenth will be leased later this year. In December 2016, Statoil Wind US, part of the Norwegian oil and gas giant, bid $42.5 million to lease, for offshore wind development, a tract of ocean that begins about 15 nautical miles southeast of New York City.

“Since Block Island came online interest in offshore wind along the East Coast has gone through the roof,” says Lorry Wagner, an engineer whose company, Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation is pushing for a wind farm off Cleveland, in Lake Erie. “Every major developer in the world wants to get into the United States and get a project.”

In my first column we journeyed across toxic Louisiana, learning that many of the state’s most terrifying environmental problems are connected to the petrochemical industry. But is there another way to provide jobs for people in south Louisiana oil country? The answer appears to be yes.

Because of the offshore oil industry, and its associated shipyards, fabrication shops, supply vessels, and skilled workers, Louisiana is perfectly situated to take advantage of the wind boom looming over the East Coast. Plus, according to National Renewable Energy Laboratory maps the Gulf of Mexico has good offshore wind potential. Although technical hurdles still exist, such as creating turbine blades that can withstand hurricanes with winds stronger than 120 miles-per-hour , Michael Webber, Deputy Director of University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute says, “the Gulf is an obvious place for offshore wind.”

The state’s politicians do not appear to have embraced this free, clean, job-creating resource. But in the offices of Montco Offshore, along a state highway 72 miles southwest of New Orleans, we find Joseph Orgeron, whose story contains an interesting lesson for Louisiana oil country. “My competitors,” Orgeron, a meaty man with a Cajun accent tells us, have taken to calling me, “Don Quixote.”

Joseph Orgeron.

Orgeron is presently Montco’s chief technology officer. The company operates lift boats, odd-looking ships that are like a floating construction detail. They contain cranes, and by planting long steel feet on the seafloor provide a stable and adjustable platform that enables welders and riggers to perform critical service work on offshore oil rigs. Liftboats have been good business for Montco, but oil is an industry of booms and busts. When crude prices drop rigs stop drilling, and work for oil service companies like Montco dries up. Orgeron, who has a Ph.D. in high energy particle physics and for a time worked analyzing crop forecasts for Mars, the candy company, was brought into the family business to help establish new lines of liftboat customers. Which he did.

During the summer of 2009, while doing a job off the coast of New Jersey for the British Geological Survey, one of Orgeron’s liftboats was docked in Atlantic City, a harbor more accustomed to mega yachts and fringed by casinos. Soon after arriving in town Orgeron received a curious string of calls. Three different offshore wind companies wanted to view his vessel. This is when the lightbulb went off. He began attending offshore wind conferences, and educated himself on the industry. “It’s good for us to be diverse and find other ways to use these vessels,” says Orgeron. “If you don’t have that mentality you are a dinosaur, and you’re going to go out of business.”

One of the companies that had approached him in Atlantic City was Deepwater Wind, a Rhode Island business that at the time was considering a wind farm off Block Island. When Deepwater Wind finally went ahead with their project, in 2015, they chose a New Jersey-based company to perform the critical task of using a 260,000-pound hammer to drive steel piles nearly as long as a football field 100-feet into the seafloor. This company attempted to perform the difficult hammering job from a floating barge and failed. Then Deepwater Wind called on Montco.

“We came in to pinch hit,” says Orgeron, “and hit it out of the park.”

It was a watershed moment. Planting major infrastructure into the seafloor is difficult. And Montco proved that, whether the task be establishing an oil rig or building a wind farm, a Louisiana oil service company could do the job better than anyone.

This past April, Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski, fast-becoming a renewables celebrity, delivered the closing address at the busy International Offshore Wind Partnering Forum in Annapolis, Maryland. Montco wasn’t the only Louisiana company to contribute on the Block Island project. The wind turbine foundations were designed by Keystone Engineering, in Mandeville, Louisiana, and fabricated in Houma, Louisiana by Gulf Island Fabrication, a company that typically builds ships and structures for the offshore oil industry. In his speech Grybowski thanked three groups; the Europeans for paving the way on offshore wind, the local Rhode Island workforce, and the Louisiana oil service companies.

And more East Coast offshore wind projects are coming. The energy demand is there. The wind is there. Residents are largely living in coastal cities close to the wind. The price of power is high, making renewables competitive. And there isn’t much space or public appetite for large onshore energy projects. “For us, the East Coast of the United States is very much a priority market,” says Jason Folsom, who heads the offshore wind’s sales division in the Americas region for Siemens Gamesa Renewables, the company that established the offshore wind industry. Folsom points out that in 2004 Siemens had 50 employees working in onshore wind in America. Now there are 2,000. He expects offshore wind to have a similar arc.

The secret is out. On August 9, Orgeron spoke on a panel at the Offshore Wind Executive Summit, in Houston, a conference intended to convey to Gulf of Mexico oil service companies the tremendous opportunities in wind. “He is our poster child,” says Jennifer Runyon, chief editor of Renewable Energy World and one of the conference’s organizers. “These oil companies have the engineering skill, and know how to build big projects way out in the ocean. We want them to be paying attention to wind, and figure out how to make some money off it.” On August 22, Orgeron spoke about wind turbine installation at a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management conference in New Orleans. Still, Louisiana politicians have been mostly absent in supporting what seems like a budding industry rich in jobs. “I speak to Louisiana politicians,” says Orgeron, but they have been lukewarm on wind. “They see me as oil and gas.”

Yet the Louisiana oil industry workers that have been exposed to wind have been very receptive. “The crew members on the Block Island project, who have worked all their life in oil in the Gulf of Mexico were just tickled at the chance to work on offshore wind,” says Orgeron. In fact, they call him regularly to check on when the next offshore wind job might be. “It is not that we hate oil and hydrocarbons and are all Greenpeace and Sierra Club,” Orgeron explains. “It’s more like, wind is novel, it is new, it is good to have a change of revenue.”

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We travel north away from the coast on Interstate 49 to Shreveport, in northwestern Louisiana, to meet with Foster Campbell, one of five Louisiana public service commissioners. Apparently, he knows the answer to the question of just why Louisiana politicians have ignored the opportunities presented by offshore wind.

Foster Campbell. (Photo: CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Campbell has worked as a school teacher, an agricultural products salesman, an insurance agent, a farmer and for 27 years as a member of the Louisiana State Senate. In 2016, he ran for US Senate. “Foster Campbell has consistently fought in the interest of regular people…for affordable clean energy, and has shown that he is not a paid servant of the big utilities and energy companies,” the Sierra Club wrote in their endorsement. We find him seated on a couch beneath a photo of a Louisiana black bear.

“We have wonderful people in Louisiana but the oil companies have done a great job of brainwashing Louisianans,” Campbell begins. “People don’t get the real information. The newspapers don’t put it out, and the TV stations don’t want to argue with the industry. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which relies heavily on money from oil and chemical companies, tells politicians what to think. If you’re a normal politician you’ll think the information they give you is reasonable, but all they’re doing is spoon-feeding you horseshit. You take it for granted as true, and the people in Louisiana believe it.”

“I tell you where I see the suffering,” he continues. “We are one of the most undesirable states to live in, and that is a damning statistic. For companies with a lot of smart folks that want to relocate to Louisiana, that makes them not want to come here. We have the third worst poverty rate of any state in the United States. Our environment is right at the bottom. Our roads are right at the bottom. Our education system is right at the bottom. So, would I say our state has been bought and paid for? Yes. I would say the special interests own Louisiana. The oil and chemical companies own Louisiana. And the people’s interests, the interests of most Louisianans, are way down the line. And that is a tragedy.”

We’ve never seen a Louisiana politician quite like this, and ask Campbell how he got this way.

“I was like any other brainwashed Louisiana boy,” he says. “I was a big 4-H member, I showed cattle. And I never thought anything about pollution.” He turns to a man seated across from him named Bill Robertson, his executive assistant. “I’ll be honest,” says Campbell. “I would still be like everyone else, but Bill got me thinking about the environment, then I started seeing the pollution, and the whole world opened up to me.”

Robertson hands us a copy of a 2004 paper Campbell helped commission that discusses the possibility of installing wind turbines on old offshore oil rigs. Engineers have since pointed out that wind turbines create torque offshore oil platforms were not designed to handle. But that a Louisiana politician was actually thinking about this more than a decade ago is impressive. While the winds of a Category 4 hurricane are too powerful for current turbine blades, putting offshore wind in the Gulf looks possible, Siemens engineer Jørgen Rasmussen explains in an email message. “I would be very surprised,” he says, “if we didn’t find suitable sites within the Gulf.”

New designs are already being researched with storms in mind. The University of Virginia and several other universities are working with Sandia National Laboratories to create a turbine that can fold its blades inwards in heavy winds. The design is inspired by how palm trees behave in hurricanes. Researchers at MIT and elsewhere have considered floating wind turbines, which could be tethered to the seafloor by steel cables.

We drive into the Louisiana oil town of Houma and take a seat at a roughneck bar called The Brickhouse to see what the state’s people think about all of this. Turns out the manager, who calls himself Rippa, worked in offshore oil for 20 years. He was injured out there in the early 1990s and is still sour on the industry. Lately, the price of oil has been down and the town is in a slump. Rippa is actually very interested in wind.

“We have the infrastructure, we have the boats, we have the people who can work it,” he says. “And any type of work is good. If it’s going to help out, I’m looking forward to having it.”

The people of south Louisiana are clearly ready for a new vision. But how long will it take? Where else in the country are Americans being cheated out of clean energy and good jobs and healthy environments? When the hot night wind blows, we get up and go.

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Previously: The Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip

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Justin Nobel’s stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, Popular Mechanics, Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and been published in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, and Best American Travel Writing 2011, and 2016. A book he co-wrote, The Story of Dan Bright, tells the life story of a New Orleans man wrongfully convicted of murder, and was published last year with University of New Orleans Press.

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Editor: Mike Dang
Fact-checker: Matt Giles