Why Houston Lessons Matter


Ramanan Krishnamoorti, UH Director of Energy and Aparajita Datta, UH Energy Research Fellow

Most conversations about fighting climate change have focused on what the federal government and the global community can do. In energy hub Houston, promises by oil companies to cut emissions have drawn attention.

But when it comes to climate change risks, cities are on the front line, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in Houston and along the Gulf Coast, where much of the refining capacity and the country’s petrochemical manufacturing is concentrated.

With the onset of hurricane season and the overheating of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, the issue of our preparedness is front and center.

Like other cities, Houston has worked to promote energy efficiency and a cleaner transportation sector, which are important in addressing climate risks. But cities are not equipped to embrace other policy innovations that can quickly and adequately mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Climate resilience requires coordinated policies at all levels of government and the private sector, but the nation has failed to build that resilience and break down silos. Houston shares why giving local governments the right resources and facilitating integration between local, state and federal jurisdictions is essential to building a more resilient country.

It has been almost five years since Hurricane Harvey hit the city and temporarily halted the national economy, as refineries and petrochemical plants that supply the country with gasoline, jet fuel and other products have been shut down.

The impact on Houston was much more lasting. Since then, every extreme weather event, from Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019 to Winter Storm Uri in 2021, has tested the limits of Houston’s resilience.

As the risks continue to grow, Houston’s future depends on the pace of coordinated policy change and the need to rethink how to build resilience within communities and across the systems that connect us.

The Houston metro area should add 3 million people, rising from about 7 million to 10 million by mid-century. Projected population growth, accompanied by increasing urban sprawl, will compound the risk presented by flooding – a threat well known to Houston-area leaders and residents – and two that have received much less attention: rising sea ​​level and land subsidence.

Currently, about a quarter of homes in the Greater Houston area face significant flood risk. Increased precipitation by 2100 means that the annual risk of at least one flood exceeding 7 feet will double. While home ownership in Houston once offered working-class families the promise of upward mobility, this increased risk will increase the number of homes with significant or repeated flood damage.

This will push and keep low-income families in neighborhoods that are experiencing lasting impacts, increase the cost of ownership, and make it harder for them to access safe, livable housing.

Simultaneously, sea ​​levels along the gulf coast are expected to rise 5 feet above 1992 levels by 2100. Storm surges are expected to increase 10-fold by 2050, resulting in a three-fold increase in the number of homes at risk, potentially displacing 500,000 people.

The city’s population growth will increase the demand for water and housing over the next three decades, putting additional pressure on our land and water resources. Increased groundwater pumping and developed land cover directly affect the magnitude and extent of land subsidencewhich in some areas of Houston is already reaching 0.3 feet per decade.

Houston’s vast business infrastructure is also under threat. The Port of Houston, one of the largest ports in the United States by tonnage transported by water, and the Houston Ship Channel are among the most vulnerable to extreme climate and weather hazards.

Operational disruptions to the shipping channel due to past extreme weather events have caused economic losses over $300 million a day. Similarly, a third of the region’s petrochemical facilities are subject to flooding during a 100-year flood, the frequency of which is now likely to increase with each one to thirty years along the Gulf Coast.

Over the next decade, the cost of climate hazards to the Houston Ship Channel and petrochemical facilities in the Gulf Coast region could increase by as much as 800%while the cost of critical equipment failure and associated punitive fines will be much higher.

Without improved engineering, design and remediation standards based on a realistic risk analysis, not only would material damage and costs be significant, but the functionality of the city’s energy facilities would be at risk. Robust government policies consistent with real-time, high-resolution facility-level risk modeling are generally lacking and unable to capture the effects of land subsidence and encroachment on watersheds and wetlands.

Therefore, the impacts of extreme weather events go beyond immediate damage, operations, supply chain disruptions and personnel safety, and have lasting consequences for nearby communities and the environment.

Houston’s economic recovery from Harvey has led to the common misperception that the city has fully and successfully rebounded since 2017. Some of the most vulnerable and marginalized Houstonians are still rebuilding from Harvey, and Uri was another setback. He held up a mirror to the city which is unprepared and ill-equipped and, like the rest of the nation, faces deep political differences between local, state and federal agencies.

What remains unanswered is that building climate resilience goes beyond immediate recovery. This requires systems-level planning for the unexpected, equipping local governments with resources that can meet the unique needs of their residents, and facilitating communication with federal and state counterparts to protect infrastructure, social systems, and communities.

Houston is the harbinger of America’s future — demographically and climate-wise — and how the city persists and thrives in its efforts to build resilience will shape the path forward for the nation.

UH Energy is the University of Houston’s center for energy technology education, research, and incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy sector.

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