Energy production usually surfaces in climate discussions as the culprit behind changing global temperatures, but the effects of climate change will reverse the tables as new weather patterns begin to impact the energy sector, witnesses said at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Experts predict rising temperatures and altered weather trends will wreak the most havoc in coastal regions, where an increasing number of storms are projected to hit as a result of climate change. This could severely affect energy infrastructure in the United States, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
"A significant portion of our nation's critical energy infrastructure is concentrated in coastal areas that are vulnerable to natural hazards and changes in climate," said Bingaman, chairman of the Energy Committee. "This infrastructure forms the heart of a nationally and globally interdependent energy system."
The Gulf Coast represents a particularly vulnerable area, Bingaman said, because of the key role it plays in energy distribution for the nation. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the region in 2005, a third of the nation's refining capacity was closed, causing an increase in energy prices.
The area hosts infrastructure that receives and transports two-thirds of all U.S. oil imports, according to a study on the impact of climate change in the region conducted by the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Geological Survey. In addition, pipelines in the Gulf Coast transport more than 90 percent of all domestic oil and gas produced in the Outer Continental Shelf.
Scientists working on the Gulf Coast assessment project climate change, coupled with a slow sinking of the area's land mass, could result in a dramatic rise in sea level for the Gulf Coast shoreline.
"We think (a sea-level rise of) 2 to 4 feet is plausible by 2050," said Virginia Burkett, chief scientist of the Global Change Programs for USGS.
In some areas, the rise will be due more to the region's sinking land mass. In others, rising sea levels, caused by melting polar ice caps, will cause most of the increase.
"Most of the change in the Alabama coast is due to the sea-level rise as opposed to sinking," Burkett told senators. "It's just the opposite in Louisiana."
Rising ocean temperatures could also cause an increase in storms and hurricanes in the region. Both of these scenarios cause concern for energy infrastructure along the coast, such as Port Fourchon, located near the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, La. The port provides services for 90 percent of all deepwater oil rigs and 45 percent of shallow-water rigs in the Gulf. Pipeline infrastructure that runs through the port connects to 50 percent of U.S. refining capacity.
Damage to the port could seriously affect the rest of the country, said Ted Falgout, executive director of the port.
"A three-week loss in operation at Port Fourchon would result in losses of $10 billion in sales, $2.9 billion in household earnings and 77,400 jobs nationwide … (as well as) a 21.6 cent per gallon increase in gasoline prices," Falgout told members of the Energy Committee.
Damage to infrastructure surrounding the port could also have far-reaching impact, said Chett Chiasson, director of economic development for the port.
Currently, only one highway provides access to the port.
"On either side of it are two estuaries that are the fastest eroding in the country," Chiasson told United Press International. "If someone wanted to upset 18 percent of the nation's oil supply, all they'd have to do would be to disrupt (that highway)."
Congress passed a law in 2006 that attempts to upgrade infrastructure in the area by granting some of the revenue generated from offshore oil production to local governments. However, these funds won't be available for some time, said Stephanie Allen, spokeswoman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
"(The bill) only gets revenues from new leases, and, for the first 10 years, only from leases in areas the bill opened up" for drilling, Allen told UPI.
Since it usually takes five to 10 years from the time of purchase to the first oil sales, states bordering the Gulf of Mexico may not see any of that money until 2017. However, the funds are desperately needed now to build and maintain levees and update other infrastructure, Allen said.
"It may hurt to write a big check for new levees right now, but it will prevent the kind of crushing economic damage that would occur if we sustain another massive storm or flood and we're not prepared for it," she said.
In fact, if another Katrina occurs and the impacts are similar to those the last time around, gas prices could rise to $6.10 per gallon, Landrieu said.
"We can't prevent that storm, but we could take steps to" prevent the aftermath, she said.