Hurricane season begins on June 1 and America’s energy industry has been working for months to prepare for the coming storms. Last year, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria exposed how major storms continue to pose threats to American energy infrastructure. In preparation for this season’s storms, industry and government groups have been meeting to coordinate preparations and responses to weather events to ensure that the natural gas and oil industries are resilient in the face of whatever Mother Nature throws at them.
Much of America’s energy industry, including both drilling and refining capacity, is centered around the storm-prone Gulf of Mexico, making the weather an annual challenge.
“Misguided and failed regional energy policies, driven by failed political NIMBYism mean America has placed the vast majority of its offshore energy eggs in one basket, the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico,” said Tim Charters, senior director of governmental and political affairs at the National Ocean Industries Association, who said that the industry had “dodged a bullet” last year.
“Despite the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2017, there were no reported deaths or injuries among offshore workers, no reported damage to offshore facilities and no reported spills from offshore facilities. This is a testament to how well the offshore industry prepares and responds to hurricanes,” he continued.
Maintaining access to natural gas and oil in the aftermath of a major storm requires a highly coordinated response between different segments of the industry as well as with state and local government. For the petroleum industry, recovering after a storm means everything from restarting closed or evacuated offshore drilling platforms to ensuring that individual gas stations are resupplied. For the natural gas industry, work after the storm focuses on maintaining backup power so that pipelines keep flowing.
After last year’s storm season, the industry and government officials met to reevaluate their hurricane readiness and response approaches. The goal was to prevent situations where industry technicians were not allowed to enter closed off areas to begin working to restore energy access or instances where specific environmental permitting slowed down restarting refineries.
Cooperation within industries has helped to mitigate the impact storms have on customers. Industry trade groups, for example, have organized to allow member utility companies to share personnel and equipment in the event of an emergency.
“The American Gas Association (AGA) offers a Mutual Assistance Program to members following any disaster or weather event that causes widespread interruption of natural gas service,” explained Mike Bellman, director of operations and engineering services for AGA.
“This program helps provide personnel and equipment from unaffected natural gas utilities to help restore service safely and quickly. This program has not been needed since Superstorm Sandy as local natural gas utilities have been able to handle recovery in recent years by calling upon their internal resources.”
In theory, this mutual assistance program could allow a regional utility to pull resources from anywhere in the rest of the country. In practice, situations have almost never gotten that bad. So far, the program has only been fully implemented during Hurricane Sandy and Superstorm Katrina. Since the natural gas pipeline network is primarily underground, it is better able to weather the storms.
Even as Houston flooded during Hurricane Harvey, the gas system in the city remained intact and operational.
This shows how, for all of their similarities, the oil and natural gas industries have different areas of concern during hurricane season. In the Gulf of Mexico, a center of offshore drilling, the petroleum industry juggles safety on the rigs, which are frequently shut down and evacuated in advance of major storms, with the needs of refineries and individual gas stations.
“Marketers work to keep all of their clients, including gas stations, convenience stores, truck stops and marinas fully supplied with fuel. Following a disaster marketers re-supply their clients as quickly as is possible,” said Sherri Stone, vice president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America (PMAA), who described how marketers have worked to integrate across the country to rebuild supplies of fuel in other regions after declared emergencies.
“The marketers who do this provide an invaluable service for their country, and we have put together a Disaster Fuel Response Program to connect companies looking for fuel during and following a disaster, with PMAA State Association member marketers and heating fuel providers who wish to provide the service.”
This year will be the first chance to test this program, which was developed in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
Unfortunately, the only way to determine the effectiveness of these programs will be to test them. While both industries would doubtless prefer to see a mild storm season, they need to be prepared for the worst. After months of meetings to see how responses can be better coordinated, the only way to really see their effectiveness is for a storm to hit.
“We feel that our industries are well prepared for this year’s hurricane season,” says Jeff Gunnulfsen, “Remember that each storm is unique and our emergency responses have been well rehearsed. We try to learn from our past storms.”