The most intense hurricane on record to hit Louisiana swept through one of the country’s largest chemical, oil and gas centers. And while it may take days or weeks for the full extent of the storm’s impact to become clear, early damage reports have heightened concerns about the vulnerability of the region’s fossil fuel infrastructure to the storm. intensification of storms.
Officials on Monday warned that floodwaters had spilled onto a temporary dike erected near a Phillips 66 refinery in Plaquemines, the state’s southernmost parish and one of the most severely affected by the Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago. And in the nearby parish of St. Bernard, nearly two dozen barges unmoored by the 150-mile-an-hour winds of Hurricane Ida damaged the dock at the giant Valero refinery. And news photos showed extensive flooding and flares at Shell’s refining and chemicals complex in Norco, further inland.
Previous hurricanes, including Harvey in 2017 and Laura in 2020, have spilled oil and chemicals from storage tanks and other facilities along the coast.
Bernardo Fallas, spokesperson for Phillips 66, said the company “will do a post-storm assessment of the refinery and its dikes when it is safe to do so.” The refinery “completed a safe and orderly shutdown” before Ida’s arrival, he said.
Guy McInnis, president of St. Bernard Parish, said flood levels there reached 14 feet and bulk barges caused “significant damage” to the docks at the Valero refinery. The Coast Guard has secured the barges, but “we’re going to be shutting down for a while,” McInnis said. Valero did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Louisiana’s 17 oil refineries represent nearly a fifth of the nation’s refining capacity, with the capacity to process about 3.4 million barrels of crude oil per day, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. . In 2020, Louisiana’s two liquefied natural gas export terminals shipped approximately 55% of the country’s LNG exports.
Much of that capacity was built after Katrina, and plans are underway for a dozen more liquefied natural gas export terminals in the region, including at Port Fourchon, where Ida made landfall on Sunday.
Environmental groups have criticized the plans, saying they contribute to the very climate crisis that threatens these facilities. “Last year Laura also made landfall at record strength in the other part of the state where they want to build this mess,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a local environmental group. “At best, it’s a disaster.
Neighborhoods just outside these facilities, many of which are disproportionately made up of minorities, face other risks.
Refineries and chemical factories release toxic pollution into the air when they close before major storms, putting neighboring neighborhoods at risk of exposure. In 2017, petrochemical plants and refineries in Houston released millions of pounds of pollutants in the days after Hurricane Harvey began to hit Texas. And in the aftermath of the storm, explosions rocked a chemical plant northeast of Houston that had lost cooling power, triggering evacuations and releasing fumes that sickened rescuers.
Real-time pollution data was not yet available. But the risks arise in a state that already has the highest toxic air emissions per square mile in the country. According to an audit of Louisiana environmental regulators released by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office in January, the state averaged more than 1,200 pounds of toxic releases to the air per square mile – far ahead of the world. Ohio, the state with the second highest level of emissions of about 900 pounds per square mile. Pollution has earned the industrial corridor of Louisiana, pummeled by Ida, the nickname “Cancer Alley”.
Another threat is the state’s offshore oil and gas platforms. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan destroyed an oil rig about 10 miles off the coast of Louisiana, triggering what is still the longest oil spill in U.S. history.
A recent report released by the US Government Accountability Office found that oil and gas producers were allowed to abandon 97 percent of offshore pipelines in the Gulf without incurring penalties.
“Hurricanes can and have moved pipelines great distances, creating a multitude of risks to the marine environment, shipping and fishing,” said Kristen Monsell, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group at non-profit. “It is very scary to think of the increased risk of oil spills at sea or other accidents. “
Environmental groups hope the succession of destructive hurricanes will spark a broader debate on the state’s energy and climate policies. According to the Energy Information Administration, Louisiana ranks among the top three states in the country for total energy use, as well as per capita energy use, largely because it has a large number of industries. energy-intensive. The state ranks second lowest in renewable energy as a percentage of total energy consumption.
But in a turn, Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said this year the state needs to start drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions that are the main driver of climate change and its catastrophic effects, including intensifying hurricanes, floods, rising sea levels and extreme heat.
“Taking action on climate change can strengthen our communities and our economy,” Governor Edwards said.