Study: Houston refineries vulnerable to moderate hurricane

A moderately powerful hurricane could cripple Houston’s refineries and petrochemical industry, said a report from experts at several Texas universities.

By OGJ editors
HOUSTON, May 29
-- A moderately powerful hurricane could cripple Houston’s refineries and petrochemical industry, said a report from experts at several Texas universities.

The report was issued May 26 by the Rice University-based Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED).

Separately, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast an “active to extremely active” 2010 hurricane season for the Atlantic Basin.

Across the entire Atlantic Basin for the 6-month hurricane season, which begins June 1, NOAA forecast 14-23 named storms, including 8-14 hurricanes with 3-7 of those possibly being Category 3, 4, or 5.

“If this outlook holds true, this season could be one of the more active on record,” said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator.

The SSPEED report was released during the 2010 Coastal Resilience Symposium at Rice University. Regional, national, and international experts met to discuss how the Houston area might be made more storm resilient.

SSPEED Director Phil Bedient, a Rice engineering professor and report coauthor, noted Category 2 Hurricane Ike caused $30 billion in damage.

“Had that same storm struck 30 miles farther south, it could easily have caused $100 billion in damage,” Bedient said.

The report is part of an ongoing 2-year study commissioned from SSPEED in 2009 by the nonprofit Houston Endowment.

SSPEED assembled a team of more than 12 experts from Rice University, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, and several other institutions.

HSC refineries
The report said existing dikes and levees along the Houston Ship Channel (HSC) were barely adequate during Hurricane Ike and would not protect all refineries from the storm surge of an Ike-like Category 2 hurricane striking farther south.

In September 2008 Hurricane Ike took several refineries out of operation for weeks. The US Department of Energy reported ExxonMobil Corp.'s 348,500 b/d refinery in Beaumont was still offline on Oct. 10, 2008, and another seven refineries with a combined capacity of 1.6 million b/d were at reduced runs at that time (OGJ Online, Oct. 10, 2008).

Bedient said the HSC is home to one of the nation's busiest ports and about one quarter of US refineries.

He said models formulated using supercomputers at the UT Austin indicate Ike could have caused a 20-25 ft storm surge along the ship channel if it had struck 30 miles farther south than it did.

Environmental regulations for hazardous waste, oil spill contingency planning, and wastewater plants require dikes and levees that protect ship channel businesses to the elevation of the 100-year flood plain as set out in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood plan maps.

The study’s researchers are evaluating the vulnerability of ship channel industries to a hurricane given a projected 20-25 ft surge tide.

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