Harvey’s Assault on the Gulf Coast Raises Questions about Energy System Resilience and Policy Choices

Three weeks ago (August 25), Hurricane Harvey emerged from the Gulf of Mexico and pushed ashore in Texas with record levels of rainfall and, briefly, Category 4 level winds. Though subsequently “downgraded” to tropical storm status, the persistent rain caused devastating flooding in and around Houston and beyond. The storm and its 50 inches of rain, high winds, and flooding closed refineries and critical facilities, shuttered a significant portion of the region’s offshore and onshore oil and gas production, left hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses without power, and stranded families seeking refuge on higher ground with what they could carry from waterlogged homes. The impacts on the local community were beyond severe, with at least 60 lives being lost to the storm. And although regional infrastructure fared reasonably well and is on the road to recovery, the effects on energy markets (further complicated by Hurricane Irma) were global and uneven.

The immediate preparations in advance of the storm and the effective response thankfully limited the loss of life. However, these efforts could do little in the way of saving the area from the over $150 billion in damages and the 40,000 homes that have been severely damaged or lost to flooding. The lessons learned from Harvey (and more recently from Hurricane Irma) are causing policymakers, industry, and affected local populations to reevaluate critical infrastructure and, once again, highlight the pivotally important roles of design and engineering for prevention, adaptation, and general hardening for such events.

It is no surprise that our domestic refining industry is largely located along the coasts. In Texas and Louisiana, the simplest explanation for the colocation is the proximity to production centers, and both states have long been most receptive to such energy investment, which also partially explains the more recent expansions. As the nation’s energy demand grew, it outpaced domestic supply leading to increased imports of foreign oil, so location along the coasts and waterways proved economically as well as logistically prudent. Until recently (i.e., over the last decade) the notion of U.S. energy independence was largely the fodder of political promises but without any way to be realized. A decade ago, we were anticipating greater imports of oil and building liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving terminals to facilitate the importation of natural gas. With the “shale” revolution, domestic oil production is now at the highest level since 1970, and we are about to become a net exporter of natural gas.

Even more impressive, with the significant growth in renewable energy—mainly wind and solar—the current size of our nuclear fleet (though under duress), and still enormous reserves of coal, we are over 90 percent energy self-sufficient. But regardless of these statistics, unless there is serious and timely attention directed at more thoughtful and creative policies and investment, technology advancements, more resilient infrastructure, and fuel optionality, we run the risk of compromising this potentially enormous advantage.

Scientists and politicians will continue to debate the role of climate change in the devastation associated with Harvey, but rising sea levels and warmer temperatures are increasingly recognized as pivotal factors behind stronger and more water-laden storms. However one defines a more sustainable system and future, now might be a particularly good time to establish that objective as an immediate priority.

Climate change advocates who hasten calls for a fossil-free world often underestimate the longevity and benefits of oil and gas. Over a billion people in the world still lack the luxury of reliable power and clean cooking fuels. Industrial processes have high heat requirements, and petrochemicals are essential for plastics, medicines, foodstuffs, and a variety of noncombustible products. Solar and wind provide enormous benefits but also share vulnerabilities as continuous power sources when roofs collapse and basements flood. As the pounding from Hurricane Irma unequivocally demonstrated, above ground power lines carrying electrons without distinction—even with the benefit of reinforced/concrete poles—can nonetheless succumb to hurricane force winds. And buried lines are susceptible to flooding. Furthermore, electric cars and autonomous vehicles would have been challenged on flooded roadways and congested evacuation routes, even as gasoline/diesel vehicles encountered similar but different sets of issues.

An updated diversified, resilient, and sustainable energy system is a must, but as new technologies and energy choices emerge, they will need to be complemented by prudent policies aimed at enhancing urban planning, zoning, infrastructure, and delivery systems as well as social consciousness. And after these hurricanes who among us thinks the concept of strategic fuel reserves has outlived its usefulness? As we (re)build post Harvey and Irma, it is eminently sensible and necessary to take a longer-term view and advance strategies designed to accommodate both new technology and the array of new challenges for our cities and systems of the future.

For more CSIS analysis on the impacts of hurricane Harvey, see Energy Impacts of Harvey Will Be Felt Globally and Harvey Continues to Batter Energy Markets.

Frank A. Verrastro is a senior vice president and trustee fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Adam Sieminski holds the CSIS James R. Schlesinger Chair for Energy and Geopolitics. Andrew Stanley is a research associate with the CSIS Energy and National Security Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Frank A. Verrastro
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program
Adam Sieminski
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Andrew J. Stanley