Gulf Coast energy, fishing industries should adapt now to climate change, new report says

By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
6 June 2012

The energy and fishing industries along the Gulf of Mexico must begin now to adapt to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes, loss of coastal wetlands, and the biological effects of warmer water temperatures, according to a report released at anews conference Wednesday by three Louisiana State University scientists. The report, prepared for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, formerly known as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, warns that offshore oil platforms are especially at risk from the effects of hurricanes, whose intensity is likely to increase with global warming, although the number of hurricanes may drop.

katrina-rita-track-oil-rigs.jpgView full sizeHurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed a combined total of 115 offshore oil and gas platforms. Most platforms off the central and western Gulf Coast experienced hurricane force winds in at least one of these storms. The areas in which Katrina and Rita produced hurricane-force winds are shaded in light orange and pink, respectively. Black dots depict the location of offshore platforms.

The report says the energy industry represents 90 percent of the coastal region’s industrial assets, including production platforms and oil ports, 30 percent of the nation’s refineries, and numerous petrochemical plants.

Those assets already have been repeatedly buffeted by hurricanes in 2004, 2005 and 2008. Hurricane-force winds destroy 2 to 4 percent of platforms in their paths and damage another 3 to 6 percent, according to recent studies, the report said.

Ground-level portions of Louisiana Highway 1, the only access road to Port Fourchon and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, will be flooded 300 days a year by 2050 because of sea level rise driven by climate change.

The energy industry can respond to potential damage by building stronger and sturdier offshore production platforms or budgeting for the increased losses, which LSU research climatologist Hal Needham, lead author of the report, said some companies already are doing.

Elevating infrastructure, such as the state’s effort to raise Louisiana 1, is another example of accommodating climate effects, he said.

In Pass Christian, Miss., Dupont’s DeLisle manufacturing facility has improved protective levees as a way of fighting future hurricane storm surges, Needham said.

“In some particularly vulnerable areas, the best adaptation strategies may involve relocating infrastructure farther inland, where it is less susceptible to damage in coastal flooding events,” the report said.

But the energy industry may also have to build more electric power plants to meet increased demands for air conditioning, including spikes in energy demand that are likely to be caused by future higher temperatures, the report said.

The report also recommended increasing the proportion of energy produced by alternative energy sources that won’t produce additional carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases linked to climate change, including wind and solar power. It also recommends a new focus on energy conservation methods, including improved insulation and ventilation, use of lighter building materials and reflective roofing, and development of green spaces in urban landscapes.

The fishing industry is facing direct threats from storms to its infrastructure, including coastal docking and fish processing facilities. But Needham said fishers also are facing increased risk from the effects of ocean acidification caused by global warming, which could reduce the survival rate of oysters, and of invasive species from warmer waters that could outcompete their traditional catches.

The Gulf’s water is absorbing a portion of the carbon dioxide that has been added to the atmosphere by increased industrialization over the past century, which makes the water more acid.

Several studies have shown that increased acid content in the Pacific Ocean along the West Coast has been linked to a reduction in the survivability and reproduction rates of oysters. The higher acid content reduces the ability of oysters to form their shells.

The report also warns that annual “dead zones,” low oxygen areas along the Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi coasts, could become more intense and last longer.

The low-oxygen conditions result from nutrient-rich runoff carried from Midwest farms by the Mississippi River to the Gulf, which feed blooms of algae that die and sink to the ocean floor, where the algae decays, using up oxygen.

The report warns that changes in rainfall patterns resulting from climate change, are likely to increase the runoff of nutrients each year.

The report recommends that the commercial fishing industry begin reviewing changes in fishing strategies aimed at taking advantage of new fish migration patterns or the replacement of species caused by climate change. Fishers also will have to protect their infrastructure from increased risks of storms, including fishing vessels, processing plants and marinas.

“Preparing marinas and boathouses for hurricanes is an adaptation that could save the industry millions of dollars in one large storm,” the report said. The changes could include stronger building materials, elevating small boats above surge and wave levels, and providing equipment to allow removal of boats in advance of storms.

Processing plants might also be moved farther inland, which would require a trade-off of the increased cost of transportation from dock to plant against lower hurricane damage costs, the report said.

The response to the dead zone could include programs that monitor and limit fertilizer use by farmers upriver, either through education or increased regulation.


Related topics: energyenvironmentfishingglobal warminghurricane protectionlsu