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U.S. needs a Gulf Coast wall

By Julian Lee

Bloomberg Opinion

Rather than building a wall along the border with Mexico, the next president of the United States would be better off building a wall along the Gulf of Mexico coastline. Climate change will have a far bigger impact on the country than immigrants from Latin America.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has an interactive map that estimates the impact of sea level changes on the U.S. coastline. It shows that even a modest rise of three feet will put at risk a huge area of coastal land along with plenty of oil and gas infrastructure, including refineries, LNG plants and export terminals.

That three-foot rise in sea levels would threaten two of the four sites for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — the country’s emergency stockpile of crude for use in a supply disruption — along with four LNG export terminals on the Sabine Pass and Lake Calcasieu. Refineries in and around Beaumont, Texas, and Lake Charles in Louisiana would also see greater risk of flooding.

Although the sites themselves might not be inundated right away, they could quickly become impossible to reach.

Hotter temperatures don’t just mean rising sea levels and melting polar ice caps. They also create warmer waters, which provide more energy to drive tropical storms, as we have seen to dramatic effect in 2020.

So far, a record 11 named storms have hit the U.S. this year and there may be more to come. With 27 named Atlantic storms to date (many never reach the U.S. shoreline) and a month to go until the end of the “hurricane season,” there is still time for this year to match, or even beat, the record of 28 set in 2005.

This year’s storms have already been devastating for coastal communities. And they have had a huge impact on oil and gas infrastructure, too.

The region around the Texas-Louisiana state line has taken a direct hit twice this year, first from Hurricane Laura in August and then, just six weeks later, from Hurricane Delta. Refineries in the region were forced to slash processing ahead of the first storm and had yet to restore it before the second one struck. Several suffered significant wind damage and lost power for days.

The hit came just as plants were recovering from an earlier pandemic-induced slowdown in processing. Hurricane Laura briefly slashed Gulf Coast refinery runs by as much as 2 million barrels a day, or 25%, with only about half of that restored before Hurricane Delta battered the region. With several plants in the Beaumont-Lake Charles area already shuttered, or operating at reduced rates, the impact of the second storm was much smaller.

The storms have also had a significant effect on oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, forcing the closure of platforms and reducing output by as much as 1.7 million barrels a day. The net result of the weather that has battered the region this summer is a loss of about 35 million barrels of offshore production since August 22, equivalent to more than 500,000 barrels a day over the 10-week period.

One U.S. presidential candidate will continue to deny the severity of climate change and continue to champion American “energy dominance,” based on fuels that the rest of the world are slowly abandoning.

The other believes that “climate change poses an existential threat” to the country’s health, communities, national security and economic well-being, and has said he would transition the U.S. away from the oil industry.

Neither will be able to prevent future hurricanes from battering the Gulf Coast or keep rising sea levels from threatening communities and infrastructure. But the short-term preoccupations of one candidate stand in stark contrast to the long-term ambitions of the other. Julian Lee, oil strategist for Bloomberg First Word, previously worked as a senior analyst at the Centre for Global Energy Studies.


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