Houston oil infrastructure exposed to storms

Many refineries in and around Houston are located in low-lying areas scholars say are susceptible to damage from hurricane storm surge and flooding. (Sonja Elmquist/Medill)

By Sonja Elmquist
Medill National Security Reporting Project

HOUSTON — The largest search and rescue operation in U.S. history; the largest Texas evacuation ever; a $30 billion price tag and 112 deaths in the U.S.

That’s what dodging a bullet looks like.

Because that is all that was lost in September 2008 when Hurricane Ike made landfall northeast of Galveston, Texas.

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Ike drove a 15-foot storm surge across coastal Texas and up the Houston Ship Channel, shutting down a fifth of U.S. oil production for the storm’s duration and leaving the area’s refinery capacity struggling for months. And Ike was only a Category 2 storm with mild-for-a-hurricane winds of 109 mph.

If Ike had been a direct hit on the channel, refineries would have been flooded with seawater despite 16-foot fortifications, likely requiring months of repairs and prolonging supply disruptions, according to analysis by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University.

Experts say that the nation can’t count on luck alone to protect the Gulf region from future storms made more damaging due to the effects of climate change.

Climate scientists predict that current trends – rising sea levels, harder rainfalls and stronger hurricanes fueled by warmer oceans – will accelerate in coming years to hammer the Gulf Coast’s oil and chemical infrastructure. As sea level rises, floods and storm runoff will push farther inland, inundating previously safe areas and keeping some flooded areas underwater longer.

“The region is a critical component not just of U.S. but of the global energy system. And its being left comparatively undefended from a known threat is dangerously irresponsible, not just for U.S. national security but for the global stability of energy systems,” said Cleo Paskal, a former Department of Energy consultant and expert on the national security impacts of climate change.

Refineries in the Houston area account for 14 percent of U.S. refining capacity. The Port of Houston Authority estimates ship channel closures cost $300 million a day. A three-day closure caused by a barge accident in September was estimated to have cost $1 billion in lost production.

“The ship channel is probably the single most important area in terms of vulnerability and also in terms of damage impact not only in the Houston area and region but also nationally just because it is the premiere petrochemical center within the United States,” said Philip Bedient, director of Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center.  “So if it goes down even for a couple of months, all of a sudden you’re looking at tens or maybe $60 billion in damages.”

Coast Guardsmen on a routine patrol of the Houston Ship Channel's security zone in November, 2010. (Sonja Elmquist/Medill)

The fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston is home to 2.25 million people as well as more than 3,000 energy firms. It has been an international energy leader since the oil boom in the first decades of last century.

More of America’s oil imports pass through the Port of Houston than any other U.S. port. Its 25-mile ship channel complex is surrounded by chemical tanks and a dense network of pipelines that carries the fuel and chemicals out to consumers.

The effects of an oil shutdown would go far beyond the inconvenience of expensive fill-ups. A stable energy supply is vital to aspects of America’s national security:  health, welfare and a functioning economy, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s critical infrastructure overview of the energy sector.

Already, Houston has been the site of some of the nation’s worst weather.

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