Disaster in oil-industry hub aided by man’s folly


At the end of August, Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area with a flood of biblical proportions. But the disaster was not just an act of God. It was also the product of man’s folly in contributing to and then ignoring the impact of climate change.

The Texas Gulf Coast, of which Houston is the chief urban and economic center, is the country’s major hub for the petroleum industry — the chief fossil fuel (along with coal) of the past century and the leading culprit in man-made climate change (short-hand for rising temperatures caused by an increased concentration of heat-trapping “greenhouse gases,” chiefly carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere). Moreover, the cities and towns of the region have been built on a coastal plain, which is extremely susceptible to the ravages of climate change, and developed in a manner that has virtually ignored the risks posed by that vulnerability.

The Texas Gulf Coast, as its name suggests, borders the Gulf of Mexico. Its flat terrain, humid, subtropical climate and proximity to the ocean make it prone to hurricanes and severe thunderstorms. It’s also heavily populated. Harris County alone, which includes Houston, has a population of nearly 7 million people, earning it the rank of fifth largest metro area in the U.S.

Hurricanes and flooding are nothing new to the  Gulf Coast. However, climate change, which is warming ocean waters and raising sea levels, has increased the severity and frequency of such events by loading the atmosphere with more moisture and boosting the height of storm surges. The result is heavier rainfall and flooding.

Harvey dumped over 50 inches of water on southeast Texas in a four-day period. An astonishing 20 trillion gallons of water fell on Texas and Louisiana during the storm.

Houston’s disregard of climate factors in its race to development has been notorious. It has drained many of its wetlands and built in flood-prone areas. As a consequence, about 70 percent of Harris County’s land area, or about 1,300 square miles, was submerged by at least 1½ feet of water in Harvey’s wake.

The Texas Gulf Coast, both symbolically and in actuality, is the heart of the oil and gas industry.

Located about 100 miles northeast of Houston, Beaumont, Texas — also hard hit by the storm —  was home to the state’s first major oil strike in 1901, known as Spindletop. This enormous gusher and many others in subsequently discovered Texas fields not only dramatically changed the economy of Texas, they created a seismic change in the world’s economy.

Subsurface petroleum was first extracted through drilling by Col. Edwin L. Drake in Titusville, a small hamlet in western Pennsylvania in 1859. Drake’s discovery led to a boom in oil drilling in the region. Nearby Cleveland, Ohio, became the center for refining that petroleum, and by the late 1870s and 1880s, the refining, distribution, and ultimately the extraction of oil fell under the near monopolistic control of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company. “Black gold” was initially used for kerosene lighting, though, with the mass production of automobiles in the early 20th century, the internal combustion engine soon became its chief application.

But potential international competitors to Rockefeller emerged in Britain’s Shell Company and the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company (later merged with Shell into Royal Dutch Shell). These competitors sought to gain control of new sources of petroleum and to break into markets previously the sole domain of Standard Oil.

In this global commercial chess game, Spindletop temporarily gave Shell a lever to weaken Rockefeller’s monopoly. It also began a shift in Texas’ economy from one centered on ranching and agriculture to one focused on petroleum and petro-chemicals. By the mid-1950s, Texas not only dominated the U.S. oil industry, it was playing a major role in developing the vast oil fields of Saudi Arabia.

The results today are plain to see. On- and off-shore wells, refineries, storage depots, petro-chemical plants and shipping facilities honeycomb the Texas Gulf Coast.

According to the Greater Houston Partnership Research website, approximately 4,800 energy-related firms, including more than 750 exploration and production firms, nearly 800 oilfield service companies and over 80 pipeline transportation firms, are located within the Houston Metropolitan Statistical area. Houston is home to 39 of the nation’s 137 publicly traded oil and gas exploration and production companies. There are 10 refineries in the region that process more than 2.2 million barrels of crude oil per day, and 14 of the country’s 20 largest oil pipeline operators, controlling 63,585 miles or 39 percent of the nation’s pipeline capacity, have corporate or divisional headquarters based in Houston.

Houston and Texas have reaped the benefits of this petro-bonanza, while the rest of the U.S., not to mention the world, have paid the cost. That’s because the burning of fossil fuels accounts for more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas and 98 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in this country, with oil and gas producing about 72 percent of those CO2 emissions as of 2015.

For nearly 40 years, the petroleum industry bankrolled a public relations campaign denying the existence of man-made climate change in the face of a growing scientific consensus as to its existence. The industry has belatedly come around to admitting its reality, if only because the destructive power of climate change has begun to endanger the industry’s own business and bottom line. But, because of its wealth and political influence, it has yet to pay a tangible price for the harm it has been causing.

The vast majority of Houston-area residents rendered homeless by Harvey cannot be held responsible for their fate (and have, indeed, made the best of a bad situation by reacting to the disaster with calm, courage and compassion). But the oil-and-gas industry moguls and real estate developers of the Texas Gulf Coast, who for so long produced and built without regard for consequences, should now be held accountable and forced to pay the costs of their actions through such measures as a carbon tax and strict shoreland zoning restrictions.

As the Scripture says: “For whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]