Never have two hurricanes struck the Gulf of Mexico simultaneously. As it turned out, tropical storm Marco fizzled out, but Laura became the most powerful hurricane to reach Louisiana in 150 years. Hitting perhaps the most important energy complex in America, it is another warning of the growing threat of extreme weather, charged by climate change.
In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed 115 mostly older shallow-water oil platforms and damaged many others. Nine months later, production had yet to be fully restored and was 150 million barrels lower over the period.
These storms were unusually strong offshore and, more than Laura, their paths took them over vulnerable infrastructure. Rules have been tightened subsequently to make energy plants more robust.
Hurricane Harvey in 2017 sat over Houston and delivered the most amount of rain in US history. Widespread flooding shut down refineries and led to extensive oil and chemical spills, but with relatively little long-term damage.
By contrast, the oil industry seems to have escaped Hurricane Laura relatively unscathed. The storm interrupted about 1 million barrels per day of crude oil exports, 650,000 customers across the area lost power and a chemical plant suffered a fire and chlorine leak.
Refineries may take some days to restart, but so far, they and offshore platforms appear to have avoided serious effects. If Laura had moved slightly west, it would have hit the refining centre of Port Arthur and probably caused much more damage.
Unlike in 2005, the low-lying Gulf of Mexico coast is now an important centre of liquefied natural gas exports. One project is proposed at Lake Charles itself, the site of the storm’s landfall. The large Sabine Pass and Cameron plants in Louisiana were right in its path and will be the last to re-start operations after damage assessments.
The seven named storms that hit the US before September this year are a record, and hurricane season has yet to reach its peak. Warm water intensifies the rainfall and wind speeds of tropical storms, which gain strength as they swoop over the Gulf of Mexico.
Laura is but another of a recent string of extreme weather. In October, California’s power utility cut off two million customers in a vain attempt to stop its power lines from triggering bushfires. Now, massive fires are spreading through the state again, including the second largest in history.
Possibly the highest temperature recorded worldwide occurred in Death Valley on August 16. The heatwave has led to rolling power cuts that have affected about two million Californians. The state discovered it was short of reserve gas-fired power while neighbouring states in the same boat had no surplus to export. When the sun set and solar generation stopped, the grid operator had to cut off customers to avoid a system collapse.
Between September and January, bushfires in Australia ravaged an area about the size of England. A drought and record-breaking temperatures helped drive the conflagration. The heaviest monsoon rainfall in 89 years of records drenched Karachi last week. China’s Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest, was under threat of overflowing last week because of heavy rainfall.
So far, the world's average temperature is about 1°C above pre-industrial levels. At best, if nations live up to their obligations under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the average increase will be about 1.5°C. Under current policies, with only weak effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels and forests, we are in line for an increase of 2.8°C to 3.2°C.
That may not sound like much, but when the world was 6°C colder during the last glacial period that ended 10,000 years ago, ice sheets stretched to London, New York and Chicago, and mammoths roamed as far south as Granada in Spain.
The energy industry will suffer increasingly from extreme weather driven by further rising temperatures. Cyclones rarely strike the Arab world, with Cyclone Gonu, which hit Oman in 2007, being an exception. In 2019, instead of the typical single cyclone, there were five in the Arabian Sea that threatened India, fed by warming seas as those in the Gulf of Mexico.
But Gulf countries and neighbours such as Iraq are more affected by heat waves, which drive an increase in demand for air conditioning at the same time as they lower the efficiency of power plants. Rising sea levels are a further danger to the dense concentration of refineries, petrochemical and LNG plants, storage tanks, oil export terminals and desalination plants along the Gulf and Indian Ocean coasts.
Building resilience to climate change is a must for the energy industry. Its facilities naturally cluster together in coastal areas, but locations need to be screened for climate exposure. Construction standards must be robust enough to withstand higher waves and more violent storms. The forecasting of Laura’s track was exceptionally accurate – such warnings allow timely shutdowns and evacuations – but not all parts of the world are as well-covered as the Gulf of Mexico.
Electricity grids face new vulnerability from the growing share of weather-dependent renewables: hydroelectric, solar and wind. High winds and doldrums alike can shut down wind turbines, often in the high-demand period of a cold and dark northern European winter.
Conversely, sandstorms can sweep in over Middle Eastern solar farms while heatwaves cut nuclear output. But distributing renewables over wider areas, introducing more battery storage to smooth output and expanding international interconnections can give more resilience than a system with single points of failure.
Combatting the weather-related threats of climate change is already a tough challenge for the energy industry. There are no one-time solutions: changes such as rising sea levels will be continuous and relentless. Adapting will be far more disruptive and expensive than avoiding climate change in the first place, but we are unfortunately already past the point of no return.
Robin Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis