HOUSTON (CN) — Home to an outsized amount of the nation’s refineries, the Gulf Coast faces a double-threat from climate change: rising sea levels and larger, more frequent hurricanes. And the glacial pace of a project to protect the Houston region from monster storms is out of step with the dire warnings of a new United Nations report.
Over the past five years, the Gulf Coast has been ravaged by extreme weather events.
Hurricane Harvey dropped a record-shattering 50-plus inches of rain on southeast Texas in August 2017, left 80 people dead, flooded more than 300,000 homes and around 500,000 vehicles and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage.
Five named hurricanes made landfall in Louisiana in 2020, the most ever for one state.
In February 2021, Winter Storm Uri enveloped Texas in a deep chill, and pushed the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse as residents cranked up their home’s heaters amid frigid temperatures that caused power plants and the natural gas pipelines supplying them to go offline.
The power crisis led the state’s grid manager to implement blackouts that left some Texans without electricity for four days straight – hundreds died, many from hypothermia – and Uri caused $295 billion in damages.
Some climate scientists believe Uri’s siege on Texas was caused by rising temperatures in the Arctic disrupting the polar vortex – an area of low pressure and frigid air around the Earth’s poles – and pushing it much further south than it usually ventures.
A report released Monday by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns the world is on track by the 2030s to blow past the goal, set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels because heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing.
That does not bode well for the Gulf Coast, home to 47% of U.S. petroleum refining capacity and 51% of its natural gas processing capacity. In addition, offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 15% of U.S. crude production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“Electricity demand in the US is projected to increase by 5.3 % per degree C rise in temperature. Energy infrastructure, such as drilling platforms, refineries and pipelines and evacuation routes are also increasingly vulnerable to higher sea levels, hurricanes, storm surges,” states the UN report, prepared by a panel of more than 200 scientists.
The Gulf Coast is also predicted to bear the brunt of sea level rise.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a recent report, predicted sea levels on America’s coastlines will rise by an average of about 1 foot by 2050. But the agency projected waters in parts of the Louisiana and Texas coasts will be 18 inches higher by 2050.
Higher seas could increase the magnitude of damage a hurricane-driven storm surge inflicts on the numerous chemical plants and refineries clustered along the Houston Ship Channel, upstream from Galveston Bay.
Spurred by the severe damage Hurricane Ike did to the area in 2008, with some researchers conjecturing if Ike had tracked a few miles further southwest it would have pulverized refineries responsible for a large portion of U.S. jet-fuel production, academics suggested building a series of gates at the mouth of Galveston Bay.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a study last year on the project, designed to protect against a 22-foot storm surge, estimating it will cost $29 billion and take up to 20 years to build.
But Congress has yet to approve the project, let alone fund it.
A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers are lobbying to get funds for the project included in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act.
But underscoring the massive challenge of protecting industry and mankind from climate change, experts say even with the so-called Ike Dike is in place a Category 5 hurricane could still cause devastating flooding along the Houston Ship Channel and spill millions of barrels crude oil and toxic chemicals into Galveston Bay.
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