Can the Energy Sector Become a Climate Resiliency Leader?

on March 13, 2014 at 12:00 PM
Texas Gulf Coast Cleans Up After Hurricane Ike

Petrochemical facilities are shown after Hurricane Ike made landfall September 13, 2008 in Galveston, Texas. Ike caused extensive damage along the Texas Gold Coast, leaving millions without power.

The energy industry has the opportunity to become a leader rather than a laggard on climate change risk analysis by embracing the evaluation of risks and applying its significant financial and management resources to the improvement of climate resiliency.

A new National Climate Assessment is set for release in late April 2014, and one of the authors of that Congressionally-mandated overview of climate related issues is calling for a continuous effort at risk assessment matched by highlighting of innovative solutions to increasingly pressing impacts of climate change events. “We’re learning more and more about the challenges,” lead author of both the Oak Ridge Laboratory reports “Climate Change and Energy Supply and Use” and “Climate Change and Infrastructure, Urban Systems and Vulnerabilities” Dr. Thomas Wilbanks said in a recent conversation ahead of the release of the NCA, for which he also co-authored chapters. Wilbanks is Research Fellow at Oak Ridge Laboratory, which prepared the reports for the US Department of Energy.

Previous releases of the NCA have had none of the impact of the major weather events widely linked to climate changes in prompting change, with Hurricane Sandy’s flooding and lengthy associated blackout one of a number of extreme weather events that has focused minds in both the regulatory community and industry ahead of this year’s NCA.

The energy industry’s thinking on climate change has also shifted since the last time the NCA was submitted to Congress, Wilbanks noted. “The thing that’s changed in the energy sector is the acceptance that – while the industry believes the origins of climate change are debatable and that what should be done to diminish them are also up for question – energy companies have accepted that climate impacts are real and that assessing these impacts is necessary.”

While the mix of private ownership, public regulation and interlinked infrastructure have made addressing the climate resiliency of energy sector infrastructure challenging to date, Wilbanks struck a hopeful tone in the reports and in his discussion of the results. He highlighted the work done by Entergy on the Gulf Coast to assess resiliency options and recent meetings of the oil and gas business on risk analysis as markers of change.

“The US energy sector is large and complex, with impressive financial and management resources, capable of responding to major challenges,” the Climate Change and Energy Supply and Use report says. “It is accustomed to strategy development and operation in the face of uncertainties and risks, both environmental and political. No sector has better capabilities to respond to challenges posed by climate change impacts.”

A great deal of data exists about climate change, its impacts and climate resiliency, but the federal government has struggled to create a clearinghouse for all the information that exists. The NCA process, and the Oak Ridge reports, serve as a summary and collection of existing information, but Wilbanks argues that the NCA should be an ongoing assessment process for identifying vulnerabilities and surfacing solutions.

“In the coming years the energy sector is going to make a lot of energy infrastructure decisions, and they need to include climate adjustments in their risk management strategies,” Wilbanks said. Linking up the shorter-term resiliency infrastructure planning with longer-term mitigation and impacts planning will be a challenge for the sector, but Wilbanks says he already sees “lots of signs of leadership we can learn from.”

To buy copies of the reports, visit the Island Press site here.