One year ago exactly, people around the world were watching in shock as image after horrifying image of Hurricane Harvey battering southeastern Texas flashed upon our screens and front pages. By the time the storm dissipated, more than two weeks after making landfall, it had killed more than 80 people and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage. The staggering amount of rain that Harvey dropped on the region—many areas saw more than 40 inches over four days—made it the wettest tropical cyclone on record in the United States.
But it could have been worse. Lining the 52-mile-long Houston Ship Channel are approximately 800 industrial facilities and more than 3,400 aboveground storage tanks, many filled with crude oil and toxic chemicals. As reporter Brantley Hargrove observed in a 2014 OnEarth article on Houston’s climate mitigation efforts, “Were these tanks to become unmoored and torn open by the force of an 18- to 20-foot surge (or by the heavy, fast-moving debris such a surge would likely carry with it), the resulting toxic tide would rush inland toward some of the most densely populated parts of the Houston metropolitan area.” The result would be an environmental disaster on par with the natural disaster that had precipitated it.
That scenario didn’t come to pass last summer (though the Houston Ship Channel did incur damage that required a major dredging operation lasting more than half a year). But oil- and chemical-industry executives realize how close they came to catastrophe. And they’re now taking big—and expensive—steps to protect themselves. Or, actually, asking us to protect them.
At the behest of these executives, the state of Texas is pursuing a $12 billion, mostly taxpayer-funded project to erect a 60-mile-long barrier made up of concrete seawalls, steel levees, and the like to keep rising waters from destroying all that’s to be found along the Gulf coastline. Does that include homes and wildlife habitat as well as refineries and other industrial sites? Sure. But don’t kid yourself. That’s not why industry is applying political pressure to see to it that this barrier gets built as soon as possible.
Texas’s request for federal funds comes on the heels of a smaller project that the federal government quietly fast-tracked last month—one that specifically singles out oil facilities for protection from flooding and storm surge—to the tune of $3.9 billion. Among other things, this project calls for raising existing levees to 17 feet and installing or improving six miles of 19-foot-high floodwalls around the city of Port Arthur, where oil refineries and chemical plants quite literally tower over neighborhoods filled mostly with poor and working-class communities of color, and where toxic spills and explosions are a fact of life. Some of the companies directly benefiting from the project include Chevron, DuPont, and Phillips 66.
With that project already approved, Texas is now asking the federal government to fund the construction of an offshore “spine,” a composite barrier that would trace the coastline from the Louisiana border to just below Houston, an industrial zone whose combined activity represents nearly a third of the nation’s overall refining capacity. If completed, such a barrier could indeed keep storm surges from flooding the ship channel and overwhelming its infrastructure, including its thousands of storage tanks. (Climate change is demonstrably making tropical storms wetter and more intense, though, so Texas may want to consider asking for a few billion dollars extra for add-ons and spare parts.)
Few people are arguing that Texas’s request for federal aid ought to be denied. Were a hurricane to destroy the Houston Ship Channel, oil and chemical companies would hardly be the only ones to suffer. Damage to the residents and wildlife of southeastern Texas in the form of toxic exposure would be extensive, on a level that is hard to imagine. Such a disaster could potentially turn America’s fourth-largest city into a sprawling hazardous-waste site.
Nevertheless, there’s a rich and infuriating irony to this particular set of circumstances. For decades, the oil and gas industry has forcefully spewed out misleading statements and anti-science cynicism in regard to the role that fossil fuels play in causing climate change. During that same time, the American public has heard denialist lawmakers call climate change a hoax, or falsely insist that if it does exist, it has little or nothing to do with the oil we continue to extract, produce, consume, and burn at record levels.
Now these two groups are working together, demanding that the American taxpayers—70 percent of whom believe in climate science—pay $16 billion to help protect the literal machinery of our own self-destruction.
On the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, and in solemn acknowledgement of the newly updated and horrific death tolls attached to Hurricane Maria, perhaps these aiders and abettors of climate change could show a modicum of humility for once. To them I would say this: Scientists have been telling you for many years that climate change is real, and why it’s happening. The vast majority of Americans seem to understand the severity of the problem. From your most recent actions, you would finally appear to understand the severity of the problem, too.
Now how about doing something to fight the cause, and not just the effects?
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.