The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Harvey sparks new debate over hurricanes and climate change

with Paulina Firozi


With at least nine dead and thousands displaced by floodwaters, the full extent of the damage wrought by --Hurricane Harvey --  the biggest storm to hit the U.S. mainland in more than a decade -- is just beginning to be tallied.

Nothing quite like Harvey has hit the United States before. The National Weather Service said Harvey is "unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced.” The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it is probably the worst disaster in Texas history.

But beyond the human toll — which, as it should be, is the immediate concern of both first responders and the reporters covering them -- three questions hang over the hurricane fallout.

How hard was Houston’s oil and gas infrastructure hit? To what extent did climate change exacerbate this storm? And finally, born out of those first two, there’s a final question: What will be the political fallout?

"This is not like anything we have ever seen before:”

Houston markets itself  as the energy capital of the world. Many of the largest firms in the oil and gas sector, including Phillips 66, are based there. And many more, including ExxonMobil and Dutch Royal Shell, own huge refining complexes along the region's coastline. Houston's petrochemical industry turns crude oil and other raw materials drawn from around the Western Hemisphere into gasoline and other petroleum products to be shipped as far away as Asia.

We have some idea of the short-term impacts. The storm has:

  • as of Monday evening, shut down 12 percent, or 2.2 million barrels, of U.S. refining capacity
  • that, in turn, has driven up gasoline prices up as much as 6.8 percent since Friday
  • As of Sunday, Exxon shut down its Baytown refinery, the second largest in the United States
  • Shell has shut down its Deer Park refinery
  • And at least four energy export terminals in Corpus Christi have halted shipments, Reuters reported

But the long-term impacts to the oil and gas sector— how badly, if at all, that infrastructure is damaged —  have yet to be assessed. An extremely prescient piece by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune last year lays out the risk flooding poses to the Texas Gulf Coast petroleum industry:

Flooding is the most disruptive type of damage an industrial plant can experience from a hurricane. Salty ocean water swiftly corrodes critical metal and electrical components and contaminates nearby freshwater sources used for operations. Even plants that aren’t flooded would likely have to shut down because they depend on storm-vulnerable infrastructure — electric grids, pipelines, roads and rail lines. [After a direct-hit storm] the Ship Channel itself — a crucial lifeline for crude imports and chemical exports — would probably be littered with debris and toxins, officials say. It would have to be cleaned up before ships and tankers could move safely again.

We may already be seeing the first signs of some of that environmental fallout. As The New Republic’s Emily Atkin reports, “ ‘[u]nbearable’ petrochemical smells are reportedly drifting into Houston.”

“It was certainly worsened by it:”

Because of its unprecedented nature, the storm has again reopened the debate over the link between climate change and hurricanes.

But it would be wrong to conclude that climate change “caused” this storm.

“Attributing a particular event to anything, whether it’s climate change or anything else, is a badly posed question, really,” MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel told The Post’s Chris Mooney, who literally wrote the book on the connection between hurricanes and climate change.

The question Did climate change cause Harvey? isn’t really the right one. The better way to frame thinking about the connection is through the question: Does climate change make storms like Harvey more likely?

In several respects, the answer is yes. Here's why:

  1. A warmer climate makes storms wetter. Greenhouse gases trap more heat in the atmosphere, and that warmer air can hold more moisture. That causes, in turn, storms to on average dump more rain.
  2. A warmer climate makes storm surges worse. Global warming raises sea levels through a one-two combination: The higher temperatures melt glaciers, adding more water to the oceans, while the extra heat expands that water. Consequently, waters whipped up by a hurricane — that is, storm surge — reach further inland than they otherwise would.
  3. A warmer climate may make hurricanes more intense. Finally, there’s some research that suggests that the average storm is expected to be more intense due to climate change.

Perhaps the best way to think about the connection is like a general. In the U.S. military, climate change is regarded as a “threat multiplier” — a force that makes existing risks to world peace, like droughts and floods that can trigger wars, worse.

Put another way: Hurricanes will form in the Gulf of Mexico during August with or without any greenhouse gas emissions. But climate change makes those storms more dangerous.

“We can’t say that Hurricane Harvey was caused by climate change,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, wrote in The Guardian. “But it was certainly worsened by it.”

“It’s our moral duty to talk climate *now*:”

In the coming weeks and months, environmentalists, scientists and their elected Democratic allies will politicize the storm.

And why not? After all, politics is, according to one classic definition, “who gets what, when, and how.” And right now, the Trump administration wants to give very little to government programs designed to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change. As Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and writer at Grist tweeted:

But already, we’re seeing signs that such demands will be reframed as insensitive point-scoring while Houston is still inundated. As Trump ally and Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr., tweeted:

Even with the city still underwater, disaster-relief politics are underway. As Vox's David Roberts points out: "Recall that 20 members of the Texas congressional delegation, who are now desperately requesting help, voted against federal aid to New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy."

Unlike so many GOP leaders, many of the oil and gas firms operating in Houston at the very least publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of today's climate science. Republicans who, to various degrees, are not persuaded by the large body of evidence telling us the burning of fossil fuels — like those refined and transported in and around Houston — are warming the planet may have to answer some hard questions.

Both some Republicans and Democrats have a message to those GOPers who don't see the connection between events like Harvey and climate change:

From Bruce Bartlett, who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush:

From Obama foreign policy adviser and speechwriter Ben Rhodes: 


--Pruitt probe: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General announced it will launch a preliminary probe into agency head Scott Pruitt’s travel to Oklahoma while head of the EPA.

The internal watchdog said in a memo that the research was prompted by “congressional requests and a hotline complaint, all of which expressed concerns about Administrator Pruitt’s travel—primarily his frequent travel to and from his home state of Oklahoma at taxpayer expense.” The memo notes researchers will begin the probe later this month. 

Pruitt pushed back against critics of his travel in an interview last month, telling local Oklahoma station Fox 25: “The folks talking about this, one, their facts are wrong, and that’s not a surprise. But it's an alt-EPA…It’s a group of employees that worked for Obama, that formed an organization to put out these kinds of things that are not accurate and completely forthcoming as far as those issues.”

What does Pruitt mean by an "alt-EPA"? The details about his day spent in Oklahoma were brought to light by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit founded by former EPA officials. According to the group's finding, Pruitt spent 43 of a total of 92 days in March, April and May in his home state.

From the New York Times's Eric Lipton: 

-- "He wants to come to Texas:" Energy Secretary Rick Perry praised President Trump’s response to Hurricane Harvey, noting that he wanted to travel to Texas even earlier than his planned Tuesday visit.

"The president is very, very engaged — he knows exactly what’s going on," the former Texas governor said in a Monday interview on Fox News.

"Interestingly, Brian, he’s multitasking at the same time, he’s got a lot of other things going on, as the president of the United States that he’s dealing with halfway around the world, right here in this country," he continued. “So, this is a president who can multitask. This is a president who cares about his people greatly and we’re seeing the reflection of that in his actions.”

Watch Perry's interview below:

-- "One more term:” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told his constituents on Friday that his 2018 reelection bid would be his last.

Bishop, currently serving his second term as the committee’s head, said Friday at an event in Layton, Utah, that he would step down after the next legislative term, assuming he wins reelection next year after he is term-limited out of the chairmanship. House rules prohibit lawmakers from serving more than three consecutive terms as a committee chair.

“Someone will replace me, and they will be just as good,” he said, according to the Salt-Lake Tribune. “One more term. That’s it.”

-- A dubious discount: The congressional campaign for now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently sold its campaign bus for about half of its market value to one of Zinke’s old friends in the Montana legislature.

Zinke’s campaign sold the motor home for $25,000, the Associated Press reported, though it is reportedly worth $50,000. The difference may appear under strict campaign finance laws to be a $25,000 gift.The vehicle was sold to state Sen. Ed Buttrey, who acknowledged there may be questions about the sale, as he is also up for a role in Zinke’s Interior Department. “I know that wouldn’t look good,” he said, the AP reported.

The AP added: “State law prohibits lawmakers from accepting gifts of 'substantial value,' defined as $50 or more. But the law suggests there would have to be a demonstrable quid pro quo associated with the gift for it to be a violation.”

-- It's what you don't say... A researcher from Northeastern University is speaking out after she was asked by the Energy Department to remove all references to climate change from her application for a federal grant.

Jennifer Bowen’s grant proposal was for a project on how “how environmental factors such as climate change affect the ecology of salt marshes, which serve as an important carbon sink,” The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reported.

“I have been asked to contact you to update the wording in your proposal abstract to remove words such as ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change,’” an official from the department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory wrote to Bowen. “This is being asked as we have to meet the President’s budget language restrictions and we don’t want to make any changes without your knowledge or consent.”

Bowen’s Facebook post, where she initially shared the letter from the department, has since been deleted, though others on social media shared screen grabs of the message.

“I do think it is important to make clear that at no time was I asked to change the research scope of my proposed project or modify the contents of the proposal in any other way, with the exception of the language that was to be posted on the government’s website,” Bowen told Eilperin in an email.

Eilperin wrote Bowen wanted to make the letter public "to show the hurdles that scientific inquiry faces given the change in administration."

Not the only one: "Another ecologist, University of Arizona associate professor Scott Saleska, received a similar letter from the same lab on his grant to study how permafrost is affected by decomposing plants," Eilperin writes.

The Energy Department's response: "There is no departmental-wide policy banning the term 'climate change' from being used in DOE materials. That is completely false," Energy Department spokesperon Shaylyn Hynes told E&E News.

From Yana Weinstein, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts:

-- HARVEY WATCH: Tropical Storm Harvey, which was downgraded over the weekend after making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, is now moving back toward the Gulf of Mexico, and may reach the Texas-Louisiana border later this week.

"The record-shattering rains behind the flood catastrophe in Southeast Texas will continue for several more days and have expanded into Southwest Louisiana. Across this entire region, the National Hurricane Center is calling for 10 to 20 inches of new rainfall through Thursday," Capital Weather Gang’s Matthew Cappucci and Jason Samenow report.

They add: "The Hurricane Center said the storm’s peak winds, had increased from 40 to 45 miles per hour. But it stressed rain, not wind, was expected to be the main hazard of concern."

There's another storm brewing: A tropical disturbance near the northeastern coast of Florida could strengthen into a tropical storm today, though it will have “miniscule effects compared with Harvey in Texas,” reports Capital Weather Gang’s Samenow and Brian McNoldy.

A warning has been issued for North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where the storm’s center could hit. Samenow and McNoldy add: "Between Monday morning and Wednesday morning, up to nine inches of rain is possible in a swath from the South Carolina border up through the Outer Banks."

From The Post's Mark Berman:

-- Drink up: Anheuser-Busch Brewery and MillerCoors donated hundreds of thousands of cans of drinking water to Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. MillerCoors, with a brewery in Fort Worth, Texas, sent 50,000 cans to one of their breweries in Granbury to distribute via trucks to Red Cross stations, HuffPost reported. Anheuser-Bush sent 100,000 to Arlington, Texas, as well as another 50,000 to a Red Cross facility in Baton Rouge

Both top brewing companies told HuffPost that certain plants have been periodically canning water in case of emergencies. An Anheuser-Busch spokesman told the publication that the water donated this week was already canned and ready to send to Red Cross when the organization requested help.



  • President Trump will travel to Corpus Christi and Austin, Tex. following Hurricane Harvey.

  • The Atlantic Council will hold an event on the future of infrastructure investment.
  • Environmental Protection Agency holds a meeting of the Chartered Science Advisory Board today and Wednesday. 

Coming Up

  • The EPA’s Chartered Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the CASAC Secondary NAAQS Review Panel for Oxides of Nitrogen and Sulfur hold a public teleconference on Thursday. 

  • The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications holds a hearing on the future of FEMA on September 6.

Harvey meanders just off the Texas coast:

Tropical Storm Harvey increased slightly in intensity on Aug. 28, as it meandered just off the Texas coast. (Video: CIRA/RAMMB/NOAA)

Watch as Houston residents are rescued by helicopter folllowing Hurricane Harvey:

Residents in Houston were rescued by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter on Aug. 28, as floodwaters continued to rise due to Tropical Storm Harvey. (Video: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Watch Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), President Trump, and other officials address response to storm:

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Aug. 27 said authorities in his state are focusing on “saving lives” as Harvey continues to pound Texas. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

See flooding as Houston battles fallout from storm:

The Washington Post takes you through Houston's flooded streets following extreme rainfall caused by Hurricane Harvey. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Fact Check: Ted Cruz's claim that two-thirds of the Hurricane Sandy bill 'had nothing to do with Sandy':

The Texas senator repeats myths about the funding for Sandy relief, which led him to oppose the 2013 bill. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)