December 8, 2022

The strongest hurricane ever to hit Louisiana swept over one of the largest chemical, oil and gas centers in the country. And while it may take days or weeks to see the full extent of the storm’s impact, early damage reports have heightened concerns about the vulnerability of the region’s fossil fuel infrastructure to worsening storms.

Officials on Monday warned that flooding had spilled over a makeshift dam near a Phillips 66 refinery in Plaquemines, the state’s southernmost community and one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago. And in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, nearly two dozen barges dropped by Hurricane Ida with winds of 250 mph damaged the dock of the huge Valero refinery there. And news photos showed extensive flooding and dark flares at Shell’s refinery and chemical complex in Norco, further inland.

Previous hurricanes, including Harvey in 2017 and Laura in 2020, caused oil and chemical spills from storage tanks and other installations along the coast.

Bernardo Fallas, a spokesman for Phillips 66, said the company would “conduct an assessment of the refinery and its levees after the storm if it is safe to do so”. The refinery “completed a safe and orderly shutdown of operations” prior to Ida’s arrival, he said.

Guy McInnis, president of the St. Bernard Ward, said the floods had reached four feet there and the loose barges had done “extensive damage” to the docks at the Valero refinery. The Coast Guard secured the barges, but “we’ll be out of business for a while,” McInnis said. Valero did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Louisiana’s 17 oil refineries account for almost a fifth of the country’s refining capacity and can process around 3.4 million barrels of crude oil per day, according to the US Energy Information Administration. In 2020, Louisiana’s two liquefied natural gas export terminals shipped approximately 55 percent of the country’s LNG exports.

Much of that capacity has been built after Katrina, and plans are in the works for a dozen more liquefied natural gas export terminals in the area – including one at Port Fourchon, where Ida landed on Sunday.

Environmental groups have criticized these plans, saying that they contribute to the climate crisis that threatens these facilities. “Last year Laura hit record levels in the other part of the state where they want to wreak this havoc,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a local environmental group. “In the best of times, it’s a disaster.”

Neighborhoods outside of these facilities, many of which are disproportionately made up of minorities, are exposed to different risks.

Refineries and chemical plants emit toxic pollutants into the air when they close before major storms, putting the surrounding neighborhoods at risk. In 2017, Houston’s petrochemical plants and refineries released millions of pounds of pollutants in the days after Hurricane Harvey began flowing towards Texas. After the storm, explosions rocked a chemical plant northeast of Houston that had lost its cooling capacity, triggering evacuations and releasing fumes that made rescue workers sick.

Real-time data on pollution levels were not yet available. But the risks are in a state that already has the highest toxic air emissions per square mile in the country. According to a study by the Louisiana Environmental Protection Agency published by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office in January, the state averaged more than 1,200 pounds of toxic air emissions per square mile – well ahead of Ohio, the state with the second highest emissions of around 900 pounds per square mile. Pollution has earned Louisiana’s industrial corridor, which was beaten up by Ida, the nickname “Cancer Alley”.

The state’s offshore oil and gas rigs pose another threat. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan destroyed an oil rig about 10 miles off the coast of Louisiana, causing the longest oil spill in United States history to date.

A recent report by the US Government Accountability Office found that oil and gas producers are allowed to abandon 97 percent of offshore Gulf pipelines without incurring penalties.

“Hurricanes can move pipelines significant distances and have displaced them, posing a number of risks to the marine environment, navigation and fisheries,” said Kristen Monsell, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental group. “It’s very scary to think about the increased risk of offshore oil spills or other accidents.”

Environmental groups hope that the result of destructive cyclones will lead to a broader debate about the state’s energy and climate policy. According to the Energy Information Administration, Louisiana ranks in the top three states for both total energy use and energy use per capita, largely because there are so many energy-intensive industries. In terms of the share of renewable energies in total energy consumption, the country ranks next to last.

But in turn, Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said this year the state must begin drastically reducing fossil fuel emissions, which are the leading cause of climate change and its catastrophic effects, including intensifying hurricanes, floods and rising sea levels reduce level and extreme heat.

“Actions to combat climate change can strengthen our communities and our economies,” said Governor Edwards.