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Severe Storms Could Drive Fossils Off U.S. Gulf Coast, Put Local Jobs at Risk

With climate-fueled severe storms pummelling oil and gas operations on the U.S. Gulf Coast, some climate adaptation specialists are beginning to ask what will become of coastal communities when their major fossil employers pull out, leaving unusable or wrecked infrastructure behind.

Hurricane Harvey shut down 22% of U.S. oil refining capacity, and “the road back to full operational capacity will take weeks, if not months,” CityLab reports. “It’s no secret that oil and gas infrastructure along the Gulf Coast is increasingly at risk and that climate change could render it useless.” Extreme flooding “threatens the functionality of refineries and processing plants”, while hurricane-force winds “hurtle into well platforms, rigs, and ports with increasing regularity and severity.”

In Louisiana, disappearing wetlands and coastal erosion “expose pipelines to corrosive salt water and ocean currents they were never intended to withstand. Hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment could be wiped out.”

All of which leads to tough questions about how long the region’s fossil infrastructure can carry on. “If the energy sector does shift operations away from the Gulf, the local economies that are anchored in oil and gas will pay the highest price,” notes New Orleans-based freelance writer Michael Isaac Stein. “These communities, already inundated by environmental destruction, will face an employment crisis.”

The numbers on the Gulf Coast fossil industry are daunting: with 4,000 drilling platforms in the Gulf and 125,000 miles of pipelines in Louisiana alone, oil and gas employs 2.7 million people across the region, accounting for 12.2% of the jobs in Texas, 11% in Louisiana, 5.3% in Mississippi, and 3.4% in Alabama, according to an American Petroleum Institute-funded study. The question is whether fossils will abandon $800 billion in assets across the four states—and a large part of the answer goes back to the continuing cost of repairing and trying to storm-proof facilities ahead of the next big weather crisis.

“There’s no doubt that moving the bulk of America’s oil and gas infrastructure away from the Gulf would be a mammoth task,” Stein writes. “Still, it’s not unheard of for oil and gas companies to desert their infrastructure when profitability has dried up. This country is littered with the vestiges of once-booming oil and gas operations. The decision will ultimately come down to which option the oil and gas companies perceive to be cheaper: rebuilding America’s oil and gas infrastructure on safer ground, or constantly rebuilding their old facilities while enduring profit-inhibiting natural disasters that halt production.”

He adds that, “either way, the price tag is staggering—and if history is any indication, Gulf Coast communities with the greatest stake in the verdict will not get a vote.”

Citing a study by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, CityLab says the Gulf is in a great position to develop a strong renewable energy industry. “Gulf states could accomplish this transition without federal help by rerouting some of the copious state-level oil and gas subsidies towards renewables,” Stein notes.

“The next step would be to overhaul the policy and regulatory landscapes of Gulf states to make them more attractive to renewable energy businesses,” not necessarily by deregulating, but by making rules and policies consistent enough to avoid discouraging renewable energy investment.