Home Commentary and Analysis The Strategic Importance of the Gulf Coast (Revisited)

The Strategic Importance of the Gulf Coast (Revisited)


By William Tucker

Author’s note: This article was originally posted on July 23, 2010. With Hurricane Isaac quickly approaching New Orleans, I felt it necessary to share this article once more.

By all measure the U.S. is a wealthy nation. We tend to take this statement for granted, but when contemplating a nation’s security we must understand what makes it so. The things that make the U.S. wealthy are also the same things that will be targeted by adversarial nations and economic competitors. But Mother Nature also plays a role that can have the same debilitating effect of a military attack if a nation’s economic well-being is disrupted. Such is the case of the Gulf coast.

Consider that one foundation of U.S. wealth is by happenstance of its river system. With such a robust network of waterways the U.S. can irrigate more land for agriculture leading to an overabundance of crops and livestock that can be used for export. More importantly however, is the interconnectedness of this river system. With the majority of major river systems connected and running through most of the country the U.S. can move goods to market cheaply and efficiently. Building roads for vehicles and laying track for trains is more expensive and less efficient than using a barge on a transportation network built into the land. This blessing is made possible by the Mississippi River.

For a nation to be wealthy it must also be secure. The continental U.S. shares land borders with only two nations – Canada and Mexico. Canada is a large country with a small population that mainly resides near the shared border. With such a large amount of territory, most of it uninhabitable and difficult to secure, Canada will find itself bound to the U.S. economically and militarily. Mexico on the other hand is a smaller country with a population roughly 1/3 that of the U.S. Much of Mexico’s population is centered in the southern portion of the country around the capital Mexico City because the terrain in the north is rough and largely non-arable. Mexico’s greatest benefit is that it borders the wealthiest nation in the world with which it can provide cheap labor. Economically speaking, Mexico is also bound to the U.S.

The U.S. is secure on its land borders and is able to export and import goods across the large nation cheaply and efficiently leaving Washington to protect its other driving interest – international commerce. With long coast lines and few trading partners locally the U.S. must look abroad to Europe and East Asia for conducting commerce. This also means that the U.S. must have a strong navy to protect its trading interests. In the early days of the republic, the U.S. fought wars against the Barbary States and Great Britain in 1812 to secure these very shipping rights. Indeed, U.S. adventurism is has a long history in a rather young nation.

With a powerful navy able to touch nearly every corner of the globe and an army unencumbered by local threats the U.S. can pursue its interests worldwide. The inevitable result of U.S. supremacy is the move by other world powers to push back. Today, we see regional powers take on the U.S. indirectly by targeting Washington’s interests abroad because they cannot target the U.S. homeland conventionally. With the world’s most powerful navy belonging to the U.S. a direct attack on North America from the ocean is difficult, but there is one underlying region that could disrupt economic prosperity in the central U.S. – the Gulf of Mexico.

If the robust river networks help to make the U.S. powerful then they can also serve as a target. This does not mean that every river would be targeted by an adversary, but rather U.S. adversaries could target the major source of these rivers which resides in a single strategic location in Louisiana. The city of New Orleans is located on the mouth of the Mississippi river and serves as one of the most important ports in the U.S. Indeed, the world. Consider the following figures:

  • Louisiana ranks fourth among the States in crude oil production, behind Texas, Alaska, and California (excluding Federal offshore areas, which produce more than any single State).
  • The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP) is the only port in the United States capable of accommodating deepdraft tankers.
  • Two of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve’s four storage facilities are located in Louisiana.
  • The Henry Hub is the largest centralized point for natural gas spot and futures trading in the United States, providing access to major markets throughout the country.
  • The liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal at Sabine is the largest of nine existing LNG import sites in the United States.
  • Louisiana produces about 15 percent of U.S. produced petroleum.
  • The Port of South Louisiana is the largest in the U.S. by gross tonnage and the fifth largest in the world. It exports 52 million tons of goods each year while importing 57 million tons in the same time period.

The significance of New Orleans and the entrance to the U.S. via the Mississippi cannot be understated. This is precisely why the British tried to capture the city in 1815 and why the Germans, followed by the Soviets, invested so much time in the area. While the water borne approaches to the Gulf of Mexico are important for commerce it is the island nation of Cuba which bifurcates the entry to the Gulf that cannot be ignored. The U.S. Navy can provide security to the Gulf entry, but if an adversary of comparative strength were to gain influence over Cuba’s government and plant foreign troops or weapons in the area the U.S. would respond aggressively. This was certainly the case in during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Since that time Cuba still has an anti-U.S. government, but does not have a powerful friend capable of challenging the U.S. playing a supporting role.

If the U.S. can be considered secure from most conventional threats than we are left with what nature can bring to bear. Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, and while the facilities were quickly repaired or rebuilt, the vulnerability to future Hurricanes remains. Further compounding this threat is the possibility of man-made disasters such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf. The Gulf is host to an abundance of offshore oil platforms that provide a significant amount of petroleum to the U.S., and we must remember, that this current disaster was created by a single platform.

The Mississippi River will not diminish in importance to the U.S. Thus it will always be an area where Washington will continue to pour resources when a disaster occurs.