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James Stafford

James Stafford

James Stafford is the Editor of Oilprice.com

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Hurricane Joaquin’s Threats To Energy Infrastructure, In Maps

Hurricane Joaquin is moving up the Atlantic Ocean, having strengthened into a Category 4 storm, but as of Friday morning, it appears the storm won’t directly hit the East Coast of the United States.

The U.S. hasn’t been hit by a storm of a Category 3 or larger in over a decade. Hurricane Sandy, despite the widespread destruction, was just a Category 1 hurricane.

However, serious flooding is still predicted, even if the storm doesn’t make landfall. And major storms such as these, in addition to the threats to human life, can present serious damage to energy infrastructure.

The EIA has a real-time interactive map in which energy infrastructure maps can be overlaid with the storm. While it is obviously very difficult to predict the extent of the damage from the storm simply by looking at maps, it is useful to at least get a picture of the countless number of power plants, pipelines, oilfields, refineries, and high-voltage transmission lines that are vulnerable to severe storms.

For example, let’s take a look at all of the nuclear power plants on the eastern seaboard.

(Click to enlarge)

Nuclear power plants are intentionally sited on bodies of water because of the vast cooling needs for the reactors. That usually means a river, but it can also mean along the coast. That presents risks of flooding. For example, in 2011, the Fort Calhoun power plant in Nebraska (away from the coastline) flooded from heavy rains and had to be shut down. Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, forced the closure of the Salem and Oyster Creek reactors in New Jersey. In the most extreme case the world has so far witnessed, the Fukushima complex melted down after the tsunami crashed into Japan’s coast. Related: Alaska Facing Tough Choices Without Arctic Oil

Thankfully, Hurricane Joaquin likely won’t slam into the East Coast, but heavy flooding is still predicted. A dozen or so nuclear power plants are situated near the coast, stretching from North Carolina to Boston. Of course, nuclear reactors are designed to withstand extreme storms, including Category 5 wind speeds, and the plants are equipped with flood barriers, backup power, and shut down procedures. Still, damage can occur.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit the Turkey Point power plant in South Florida, causing extensive damage and knocking off the plant’s source of power for five days. But there was no damage to the containment system and no release of radioactivity.

Nuclear power only makes up about one-fifth of U.S. electricity generation. There are many more power plants that run on coal, natural gas, hydro, and increasingly wind and solar. These power plants can suffer from outages during severe storms as well, even if they don’t present the same sort of safety concerns that nuclear power plants do. Here’s a map of all the power plants on the East Coast, illustrating the enormous number of power plants sprinkled around the country.

While power plants are vulnerable to severe weather, more often than not electricity disruptions will occur due to damages to transmission lines as opposed to the power plants themselves. And the thousands of miles of lower-voltage, more local power lines that run through neighborhoods are even more susceptible to damage. Below is a map of the high-voltage transmission lines on the East Coast. Related: Trouble Ahead For The World’s Next Shale Boom?

(Click to enlarge)

Oil and natural gas wells can also suffer damage from extreme storms. Most of the concerns are for offshore platforms and rigs, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, disrupted around 95 percent of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, with around 113 oil platforms destroyed, along with 457 pipelines suffering damage. More than 740,000 gallons of oil were spilled as a result. Hurricane Joaquin won’t pass through the Gulf of Mexico, so that is not much of a worry for this storm. Oil and gas wells are depicted in brown on the map below.

(Click to enlarge)

Now, adding in regions that are expected to see severe flooding from Hurricane Joaquin in the next few days, we see that there could be extensive damage to infrastructure, potentially causing widespread blackouts in certain areas. Related: Obama’s Fracking Regulations Take A Serious Hit

(Click to enlarge)

Fortunately, Hurricane Joaquin looks as though it will stay offshore, not making landfall along the East Coast. The U.S. dodged a bullet, especially considering Hurricane Joaquin is a Category 4 storm – remember that Hurricane Sandy was a Category 1 and even Hurricane Katrina weakened to a Category 3 storm before it made landfall. So while severe flooding is expected, it could have been much worse.

By James Stafford of Oilprice.com

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