As Houston and other Texas communities begin taking stock of the deadly devastation left by Harvey, the storm's impacts on the energy sector are being felt far and wide—in ways not seen before, reflecting how dramatically the U.S. energy landscape has changed in the last decade.
The U.S. Gulf Coast energy hub is no stranger to extreme weather. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the region's refining capacity, production and pipeline operations. The industry learned critical lessons about resilience from the deadly storms, but the years since have seen massive changes to the sector that have altered the U.S. economy, the nation's energy outlook and global markets. It has also brought new risks to all three, some of which are only now being realized.
Consider that when Katrina and Rita hit, the U.S. was the world's largest importer of refined petroleum products and was importing record high volumes of oil. Dozens of projects were also being proposed to import costly liquefied natural gas (LNG). Thanks to the shale revolution, the U.S. is now the leading exporter of refined products and net oil exports have tumbled. We are now a net exporter of natural gas and are shipping large volumes of crude abroad as well.
The growing concentration of energy infrastructure – production, refineries, processing and petrochemical plants, storage terminals, ports and more— in the Gulf Coast creates a vulnerability for the U.S. and the world. Roughly half of U.S. refined product exports go to Latin America, and Mexico depends on the U.S. for half its imports. Harvey's disruptions caused European and Asian petroleum product prices to rise, as traders diverted cargoes to meet needs in the Americas. When the Gulf Coast's energy system takes a hit, it is now felt everywhere. And in the next few years, several new natural gas export facilities will come online, meaning the next disaster could have a big impact on global gas markets as well.