If governments and businesses ignored the realities of climate change on Port Fourchon, a spit of land on Louisiana's coast, the results could be disastrous.
The port services as much as 90% of the Gulf of Mexico's offshore oil industry, and when it isn't operational, at least a fifth of the nation's domestic oil supply is blocked from delivery. Without work to adapt to a changing climate, modeling by regional utility Entergy predicts that, by 2030, an additional 10 in. of water could cover low areas of the port and the roads leading there.
More frequent hurricanes could push an additional four feet of storm surge onto the port, damaging or destroying much of its infrastructure. High winds could knock down power lines and damage substations and pipelines that traverse the port.
The situation could worsen with time, and the energy infrastructure that supports $63.4 billion in oil and gas could inundated by the Gulf of Mexico. (Climate Change's Effects on Our Energy: An Interactive Map)
With such high stakes, governments and oil companies are working to make sure that doesn't happen. Port Fourchon is spending millions to rebuild dunes along its perimeter for storm-surge protection. State and federal governments are investing millions to rebuild protective barrier islands. The regional utility is hardening substations, transmission towers and lines.
"We see the writing on the wall," says Chet Chiasson, the port's executive director. "We're not necessarily talking about climate adaptation. We are doing what we need to do to survive."
And Port Fourchon is not the only vulnerable area. As storms, droughts, heat waves, floods and sea-level increases become more frequent, energy companies are making major modifications to infrastructure. For example, after Superstorm Sandy, Con Edison and New Jersey's Public Service Electric and Gas Co. (PSEG) have proposed multibillion-dollar hardening programs to prepare for the future.
Hurricanes Ivan, Katrina and Rita, among others, have forced companies working offshore to reevaluate operations to make sure rigs and platforms won't be swept away or critically damaged. Frequent flooding led the Army Corps of Engineers to build a seawall around British Petroleum's Texas City refinery.
In the nation's interior, drought and high water temperatures are pushing utilities to find new ways to cool their plants. Companies using hydraulic fracturing in the arid West have to find or create their own sources of fluid as cities ban the use of their dwindling supplies of groundwater.
Most energy companies acknowledge that climate change is a problem. In fact, big oil companies such as Shell and BP have taken mitigation and adaptation measures, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, a non-profit that gathers self-reported carbon data.
Big oil companies point out that they have always dealt with extreme weather conditions, but the conditions are accelerating. "This isn't a climate-change problem. This is a problem that gets worse with climate change," says Jeff Williams, manager of corporate environmental initiatives for Entergy Services.
Donna Lorenz, associate director of sustainability and climate change for AECOM, says that if there is a silver lining to major disasters, it's that decisionmakers have been prompted to make their systems more resilient. She says that even when information about potential risk is backed up with data, it's difficult for community leaders to commit to taking adaptation measures. "There's a disbelief that it's going to be that bad," she says. "Unfortunately, until they see these unprecedented events ... they don't have anything they can visualize."
Major oil companies have in-house scientists and engineers who see that climate change is a problem. "They are extremely thoughtful about these issues," says Ryan Schuchard, director of the climate practice at the non-profit sustainability group BSR. But the variability in average temperatures and sea levels and the lack of reliable data are making design of energy infrastructure far more challenging, he adds.
"I'm sympathetic. We are seeing wide extremes," says Phil Pasteris, who has studied climate change and water-resource issues for CH2M Hill. "Dealing with variability is one of the greatest challenges."
The U.S. Dept. of Energy hopes to help companies find a path to action. In June, it released its "U.S. Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather" report, which defines the issue and suggests possible solutions.
Jonathan Pershing, DOE's deputy assistant secretary for climate-change policy and Office of Policy technology and deputy director, hopes the agency will be able to establish a scientific basis for collaborative action. "It's a real issue," he says. "Engineers will design, but they have to have guidance. Part of what we can do here is to build appropriate specs."
Some energy companies also are working on reducing their carbon dioxide emissions, or mitigating climate change. "Mitigation is probably the most effective thing you can do," says Williams of Entergy.
But a Sept. 27 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states, "Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped." Thus, some measure of climate adaptation is the next most cost-effective option, Williams says.
In a June 25 speech at Georgetown University, President Obama established a political imperative for the federal government to lay the groundwork for climate adaptation, DOE's Pershing notes. The message was well received, especially by those who had just experienced disaster, says Pershing, who spoke to state energy officers just after Colorado's massive flooding last month, where damage included scores of flooded oil and gas wells. They immediately understood the problem, he adds.
Based on patterns in other industrialized nations, it will take time—and more disasters—for utilities and regulators to take action, says Lorenz. For example, Australia has been addressing climate adaptation in its energy sector for a decade, and it's still a difficult discussion. As soon as he was sworn in last month, newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott scrapped a carbon tax that had been put in place in 2011.
In the U.S., nature trumped politics in 2011, when Hurricane Irene, followed by an October snowstorm, struck PSEG customers. The utility began to examine measures for a more resilient system, says Ananda Kanapathy, director of electric and gas asset strategies for PSEG.