Top To Bottom: How Climate Change Threatens America’s Fossil Fuel Energy Systems

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CREDIT: AP Photo / John Amis

A power line brought down by a winter storm in Georgia on February 12, 2014.

A power line brought down by a winter storm in Georgia on February 12, 2014.

CREDIT: AP Photo / John Amis

From top to bottom, America’s energy infrastructure is “increasingly vulnerable” to climate change, according to the Government Accountability Office.

According to a report the agency recently released, greater extremes in temperature and precipitation, stronger storms, and rising seas all threaten the country’s ability to both produce energy and effectively get it to its citizens. The report focused on four major areas in the energy supply chain, from drilling for fossil fuels to moving the electricity over transmission lines, where the effects of climate change could hit hard.

Fossil fuel extraction. Both the platforms that drill for oil and gas and the refineries that prices crude are often located along coastlines. For example, the Gulf Coast boasts nearly 4,000 oil and gas drilling platforms, and accounts for about half of the country’s oil and gas production.



That leaves all of those facilities vulnerable to storm surges, high winds, heavy waves, shoreline erosion, and flooding. In 2005, for instance, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed over 100 drilling platforms, shut down several refineries, and basically brought all oil and gas production in the Gulf Coast region to a dead halt for several weeks.

On top of that, higher temperatures are melting permafrost earlier each year, shortening the amount of drilling and exploration that can be done on the Alaskan tundra — where the rise of average temperatures has been double that of the rest of the country. And oil refineries need large amounts of water to operate, leaving them vulnerable to drought.

Fuel transportation. Pipelines and rail lines are vulnerable to flooding, both along the coast an near inland rivers. Rita and Katrina damaged 558 pipelines in 2005, and 2011 flooding in Montana did $135 million worth of damage to an ExxonMobile pipeline.

Port terminals for shipments of oil, coal, and natural gas all lie along the Gulf Coast as well as both the eastern and western seaboards. These transportation hubs are vulnerable to storms, flooding, and sea level rise as well. The thawing of permafrost matters for transportation as well, as it shifts the ground and damages pipelines, roads, and rail lines. Drought is also a factor: water levels on the Mississippi River got so low in 2012 that plenty of barge shipments carrying fossil fuels were shut down.

Power generation. Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants both require lots of water for cooling. Droughts drive down water supplies — at best leaving plants less efficient, and forcing shutdowns at worst. Increasing temperatures can even make the water in bays, lakes, and rivers too warm to effectively cool the plants. About 25 percent of America’s current electricity-producing plants are in counties with water supplies projected to face moderate or high risk by 2030.

Because of that need for water, plenty of America’s power plants are located along coastlines and rivers. So again, flooding, storms, and sea level rise are a concern.

Renewables like wind and solar are somewhat less vulnerable. But they are physical structures that can be damaged by strong storms and high temperatures. And hydropower is vulnerable to droughts for obvious reasons.

Power transmission. Power lines and substations that are above ground can be damaged by nearly everything: heavy snowfall, ice, high winds, flooding, landslides, wildfires, extreme heat and lightening strikes. In 2012, three to four million Americans lost power across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic coast thanks to thunderstorms and strong winds. Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for 8.7 million people, and 1.6 million of the were still without power six days later. In fact, disruptions to the electrical grid thanks to weather have been on the rise for the last decade:



Since refineries, platforms, pipelines, and the like need electrical power to function, climate-change-related threats to power transmission is also a threat to every other stage of energy production. These risks aren’t isolated — they can interact and amplify one another. That dynamic will likely get worse, as higher temperatures saddle the US electrical grid with more demand, and as climate change alters how much water is available for all the needs of energy production.