In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in 2006 the Gulf Restoration Network and the Sierra Club released a report entitled The School of Big Storms: The High Cost of Compromising Our Natural Defenses and the Benefits of Protecting Them. The report took a look at communities across the Gulf to see what they have been doing to strengthen or weaken their protection from storms. The report aimed to find out: What lessons have we learned? Have we made our communities safer and better able to withstand storms over time? If not, what needs to be done to ensure our safety? Among the issues we analyzed is the ability of critical energy infrastructure to withstand the destructive forces of a Category 5 hurricane. Fast forward to today and the security of our nation’s critical energy infrastructure very much remains in doubt.
The nation’s energy system is extremely interconnected meaning that regional vulnerabilities, such as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, may have wide-ranging implications for energy production and use. As climate change worsens, the impacts from higher intensity storms are going to become more common and more severe. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climate Data Center (NCDC), the United States experienced 11 extreme weather and climate events in 2012, each causing more than $1 billion in losses (Source: US GAO, Climate Change: Energy Infrastructure Risks and Adaption Efforts).
In addition, the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure is aging as about half of the oil and gas pipelines were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Increased storm activity and intensity are straining these already aging components by forcing them to operate outside the ranges for which they were designed. DOE reported that aging infrastructure is more susceptible than newer assets to the hurricane-related hazards of storm surge, flooding, and extreme winds, and retrofitting this existing infrastructure with more climate-resilient technologies remains a challenge (Ibid.). While most energy infrastructure is owned by the private sector, both state and federal governments have roles in energy infrastructure siting, permitting, and regulation (Ibid.).
Much of the infrastructure used to extract, refine, process, and prospect for fuels—including natural gas and oil platforms, oil refineries, and natural gas processing plants—is located offshore or near the coast, making it particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme weather, and other impacts, according to USGCRP and DOE assessments. The Gulf Coast, for example, is home to nearly 4,000 oil and gas platforms, many of which are at risk of damage or disruption due to high winds and storm surges at increasingly high sea levels. Low-lying coastal areas are also home to many oil refineries, coal import/export facilities, and natural gas processing facilities that are similarly vulnerable to inundation, shoreline erosion, and storm surges. Given that the Gulf Coast is home to approximately half of the nation’s crude oil and natural gas production—as well as nearly half of its refining capacity—regional severe weather events have significant implications for the coastal environment.
Following Hurricane Isaac in 2012, GRN and our partners in the Gulf Monitoring Consortium (GMC) published a report entitled Hurricane Isaac Pollution Case Study: Gulf Coast Coal, Petrochemical Facilities Not Prepared for Hurricanes. Problems at coal, chemical and oil facilities, many of them preventable, resulted in extremely high levels of air and water pollution during and after Hurricane Isaac. At issue is the failure to properly prepare for storms. While many of the facilities cited the oft used “Act of God” in their pollution reports, the problems often resulted from the most basic failure to prepare. The total known burden from the storm is 12.9 million gallons of water pollution and 192 tons of air pollution. The information came from facilities’ reports to the government. Gulf Restoration Network and our GMC partners monitored the Gulf region for leaks from wells and damage to facilities, as well as legacy pollution from the BP disaster. Our monitoring trips resulted in the discovery of 19 pollution incidents that we reported to the National Response Center and the United States Coast Guard. We found that the loss of approximately 2000 square miles of Louisiana wetlands--vital storm protection— has severely diminished the natural protection of our communities and environment, much less the oil, gas, petrochemical, and other industrial infrastructure against storm surge and hurricane force winds. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, it became crystal clear that companies are not taking the action necessary to safeguard their facilities.
The GMC Report highlighted that substantial amounts of pollution were released into the environment due to damage from Hurricane Isaac. This damage included harmful chemicals being released despite advance warning of the storm path and intensity. In addition, the storm washed ashore oil from the BP/ Deepwater Horizon disaster. Several oil refineries were noted for their pollution during Hurricane Isaac, including Marathon, Motiva, Valero, Chalmette Refining, and Phillips 66. In the Gulf of Mexico, offshore platforms are often exposed to hurricane wind fields posing a serious threat to the safety and reliability of the deck structures and the overall platform structural system, and may lead to not only loss of operation due to structural damage, but also threaten the environment with possible oil spills (Source: Ahsan Kareem, Tracy Kijewski, Charlest E. Smith, Analysis and Performance of Offshore Platforms in Hurricanes, Wind and Structures, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1999)). As storm intensity and frequency increases and oil rigs push further and further out into the Gulf of Mexico it is critical that the safety and maintenance standards of oil refineries, coal terminals, and chemical processing and storage facilities are scrutinized and ensured. Many of the pollution incidents during Isaac in 2012 could have been prevented if storm preparedness plans were followed, facilities invested in back up power systems and wastewater treatment capacities were increased to handle Louisiana rains.
So how safe are we today? Unfortunately, we won’t truly know the answer to that question until the Gulf coast gets hit by the next hurricane. What we do know is that we continue to lose on average about a football field of wetlands every hour thanks to coastal erosion. And the evidence we collected following hurricane Isaac in 2012 doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Click here to view more photos from Isaac's aftermath.
Special thanks to Jessica Marsh, Tulane University law School Class of 2016, for contributing research for this blog.
Jonathan Henderson is GRN's Coastal Resiliency Organizer.