Oil and gas industry panel on extreme hurricanes never once mentions climate change

"We recognize we are dealing with a new normal," the mayor of Houston told fossil fuel executives.

An all-male panel discussed how the fossil fuel industry can prepare for future natural disasters. Credit: CERAWeek screengrab.
An all-male panel discussed how the fossil fuel industry can prepare for future natural disasters. Credit: CERAWeek screengrab.

Everyone sitting on an oil and gas panel discussing last year’s devastating storms and how to prepare for future natural disasters could agree on one thing: Hurricane Harvey was unlike any other event they had seen. All the panelists, however, failed to mention a key reason: climate change.

Speaking on the last day of the week-long CERA Week energy conference in Houston, Texas — a city devastated by Harvey just six months ago — industry executives, along with Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston, discussed what lessons could be learned from last year’s hurricanes.

“This storm was unprecedented,” Turner told a room packed with members of the fossil fuel industry. “More water hit [the city] than any time in its history.”

Over the past three years, Turner said, Houston has repeatedly experienced 1-in-500 year level storms. And Harvey was the worst.

These are storms that are so strong that on average, under normal conditions, would only be experienced once every 500 years. Thanks to climate change, however, extreme weather events are increasingly more severe and destructive.

“We recognize we are dealing with a new normal,” said Turner, who has over the past year joined other mayors across the U.S. to call for increased action to address climate change under President Donald Trump.

Scientists have been able to show that climate change played a role in making Hurricane Harvey a stronger storm with heavier rainfall. As waters become warmer with rising temperatures, the additional heat fuels the intensity of storms. And warmer air also holds more moisture. So while climate change might not necessarily lead to more hurricanes, those that do occur are likely to be stronger and wetter than before.

The panelists, however, danced around the issue. And there was no mention of the fossil fuel industry’s role in driving climate change.

“Harvey was a very, very different storm,” said Brian Coffman, chief executive of Motiva Enterprises, which operates a refinery on Port Arthur, Texas. “We received 26 inches of rain in 24 hours. Who could’ve predicted that? Except, perhaps, NOAA.”

“One of my big learnings [sic] is that mother nature will humble you every time,” said Eric Silagy, chief executive of Florida Power & Light Company. “Every storm is absolutely different.”

Better technology and more strategic infrastructure planning were highlighted as two ways to prepare for future natural disasters.

“Infrastructure is critically important,” Turner said, describing how building more roads may help the city grow in some ways; but in other ways, can cause more damage. After Harvey hit, there were numerous accounts of how the amount of concrete pavement covering the city meant water was not draining away as fast as it should.

“We need a more holistic approach,” Turner acknowledged, noting that infrastructure should be more resilient to flooding and that “as we build in the future, we build higher and we build in such a way that we aren’t going to be flooding our neighbors.”

The mayor concluded his portion of the panel by thanking the fossil fuel industry for its contribution to relief efforts. Last September, for example, it was announced that the former chief executive of Shell Oil would lead Houston’s recovery efforts from Harvey. Turner then urged the industry to continue doing business in Houston.

Elsewhere at the conference, climate change was brought up by the current chief executive of Shell, Ben van Beurden. Amidst growing criticism of Shell and other oil majors for their role in downplaying the threats of climate change caused by the industry, van Beurden spoke at CERAWeek about plans to cut the company’s carbon footprint and increase investment in renewable energy sources.

But for an energy conference hosted in a town dominated by the fossil fuel industry, any discussion of climate change beyond this was limited.

During his opening address at the conference, Energy Secretary Rick Perry congratulated the city’s ability to bounce back from Harvey. He too failed to mention climate change and instead continued to promote fossil fuels.