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Oil & Gas Infrastructure in Harvey's Path Is A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen

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By Hye-Jin Kim

Hurricane Harvey approaches Texas. Credit: NASA/NOAA-GOES PROJECT

Oil and gas prices have spiked in anticipation of the damage Hurricane Harvey might bring to the region producing a quarter of our nation’s petroleum. But how might we brace for the tolls a hurricane of this size could levy on our environment, as it pummels numerous wells and refineries in its path? Can we?

Hurricane Harvey is a slow-moving storm. That’s common on the Texas coast due to its flat geography and weak atmospheric currents. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison ravaged the state due to its sloth-like retreat, flooding Houston with five days of relentless rain. Harvey’s slow speed and Category 3 strength is scary alone. And the region’s concentration of oil and gas infrastructure, particularly up and down the Houston shipping channel, looks like a catastrophe waiting to happen.   

Dirty energy infrastructure is fragile in the face of natural disasters and poses major health risks to local communities. Damage to oil facilities by Hurricane Katrina dumped an estimated 8 million gallons of oil from Louisiana to Alabama, the worst spill in U.S. history since the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker accident. Half of Katrina’s spill came from broken storage tanks in Plaquemines Parish, unleashing 3.78 million gallons of oil slick into Cox Bay. Just east of New Orleans, as many as 10,000 homes were polluted by another ruptured storage tank at an oil refinery in St. Bernard Parish. In 2011, a tsunami wave triggered by an off-coast earthquake led to the meltdown of nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan.

At the moment, Hurricane Harvey isn’t poised to strike Houston’s shipping channel, landing roughly 180 miles southwest instead. But Houston will feel its effects. Meteorologists predict 12 to 18 inches of rain, with a storm surge of three to six feet in the Greater Houston area. Storage tanks filled with refinery chemicals and oil dot the shipping channel’s banks, a highly vulnerable spot to storms, according to a recent report by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune. Furthermore, there are dozens of Superfund sites, areas contaminated with toxic waste, located in the 30 Texas counties currently under hurricane watch. In a flood, dangerous pollutants from these waste pits could leach and spread, contaminating nearby land and water.

As Harvey moves toward the coast, we can hope for a best-case scenario in which the storm weakens or misses its mark. But even if we avoid disaster, the fossil fuel infrastructure of the Gulf Coast will remain an accident waiting to happen.