By Ramanan Krishnamoorti, Chief Energy Officer at the University of Houston
The rains and flooding of Hurricane Harvey have been devastating, dropping an average of more than 24 inches on the Houston region and flooding huge portions of the city. Now, with the storm moving east, attention has switched to the region’s infrastructure. While much of the public’s immediate concerns are the aging dams on the west side of Houston, a second and equally important challenge is brewing on the east side of Houston.
Houston’s ship channel and the surrounding area along the Gulf coast represents about 40% of U.S. petrochemical manufacturing, and as Harvey moves off the Texas coast, the challenges are just beginning in terms of the refineries, chemicals and plastics manufacturers, and these go beyond the direct economic impact of any shutdown or supply chain bottlenecks. The chemical industry has worked hard to modernize the refining and manufacturing infrastructure over the last several decades, and that has accelerated in recent years with the changing feedstock brought by the shale and unconventional renaissance in Texas.
That’s good, but it may not have been enough.
Modern refineries, chemicals manufacturing and plastics production are designed to work like well-oiled, continuously operated machines, and most of the time, they perform remarkably well, running safely in an increasingly regulated and controlled environment. But this well-oiled machinery came to a grinding halt before Harvey struck, and as the true impact of the hurricane has begun to ripple through the industry, the challenge we face now is one of safety and ensuring no further public harm.
Already, some of the impact is becoming clear. Since Friday, there have been numerous news stories on the roof collapse at ExxonMobil’s facility in Baytown, the shelter-in-place in the Ship Channel city of La Porte following a pipeline leak, and the loss of refrigeration and back-up units at the Arkema facility in Crosby, all on the east side of Houston. The Crosby facility produces organic peroxides, used in the manufacturing of plastics such as polyethylene and PVC, that if not cooled could result in a fire or an explosion. By late Wednesday, company officials were acknowledging the risk, saying the water and lack of electricity offered few alternatives. It is critical that these challenges be immediately neutralized – not an easy task but critical to ensure the well-being of a large number of Houstonians. The industry along with federal and state agencies, are hard at work doing just that.
Ultimately, these problems – even the most serious problems – will be solved, and the Gulf coast may even see an economic boom of sorts as construction projects and repairs, at the plants and in the wider region, get underway. Solving the immediate challenges isn’t the only task, however. We also need to take a more serious look at how we handle the operations and, more importantly, redundancies and shutdown procedures for many of the highly concentrated chemicals, refining and plastics manufacturing that happen in the Houston area. The Chemical Safety Board and various academic and non-academic organizations, including the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University, have focused on identifying best practices and are helping implement them with the chemical industry. A strategic and sustained focus is needed.