Liquid Fuels Supply: Rethinking Energy Resilience in the Wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria


Posted: December 11, 2017 | By: Joel Hewett


Although Houston is commonly known as “The Bayou City,” some would prefer it to be known as “The Energy Capital of the World.” Of only moderate size when oil was first discovered in Texas in 1894, Houston and its environs now encompass the production, processing, and transportation of massive volumes of crude oil and natural gas [1,2]. It leads the world in petrochemicals research and development and is home to the best and brightest engineers and pioneers of the energy industry [1]. Nearby, underground salt caverns capable of storing 700 million barrels of oil host the jewel of the nation’s energy security infrastructure, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve [3], and local fabrication yards launch massive, floating deep-water production platforms to pump oil from two miles below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico [4].

Yet the industrial heart of the energy economy clustered around Houston and the Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi, Texas, and New Orleans, Louisiana, is not the extraction of crude oil, but its refinement [1]. As of January 2017, more than 52 percent of the nation’s petroleum refining capacity was located along the Gulf Coast, concentrated especially near the borders between Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi [5]. Located an hour’s drive east of Houston, the city of Port Arthur is home to the Motiva plant, which, with a maximum running capacity of more than 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day (bbl/d), is the largest refinery in the United States [6]. When translated from barrels of oil into gallons of gasoline, the Motiva plant processes 11.4 million gallons of motor gasoline for use on American roads and highways every day [7,8].

This concentration of the petroleum industry and its downstream assets in the Houston-Beaumont area yields considerable economies of scale for investors and consumers alike—but it also makes the region vulnerable to natural disaster events [9]. These massive and complex refining facilities faced such a threat in the late summer of 2017, as Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast August 25, 2017 [10]. While still a large Category 4 storm (on the Saffir-Simpson scale), it pushed into the Texas Coastal Bend and then meandered northeasterly along the coast toward Louisiana before hovering over Houston, ultimately dumping an estimated 33 trillion gallons of water onto the coastal plains [11].

A swath of land 3,600 square miles in area between the Houston Ship Channel and the city of Beaumont was hit hardest, receiving more than 40 inches of rain in seven days—an amount just inches shy of what Houston averages in a single year [1,12]. Port Arthur took on an unprecedentedly high 47 inches of rain
[12], inundating and shutting down the Motiva refinery. The plant did not start up its crude distillation units to their minimum operating rates for 16 days after Harvey made landfall [13].

At its peak, an estimated 27 percent of the nation’s petroleum refining capacity (equivalent to 4.8 million bbl/d) was inoperable due to Hurricane Harvey and its rainfall. Two weeks later, 10 percent of its refining capacity remained offline[14]. Nationwide, the average retail price of finished motor gasoline jumped 30 cents per gallon [15], and the Gulf Coast saw “widespread” gasoline shortages at retail stations, even after the water receded [16]. Gas stations in Dallas, Texas, 225 miles away, either ran dry or saw half-hour wait times at their pumps [16]. A handful of fistfights broke out over the shortages [17]. The primary conduit of refined products running from the Gulf Coast to the Southeast was shut down in part due to damage from the storm, but also because there simply wasn’t enough fuel to pump through the pipeline [18,19]. Port closures only exacerbated difficulties, and suppliers as far north as Chicago had problems securing fuel supplies [20,21]. In total, Hurricane Harvey took “a third of U.S. refinery capacity [offline] for days on end,” one prominent energy expert noted after the storm. “The hurricane did what terrorists could only dream of” [22].

Energy Resilience

The energy system at large is one of the nation’s 16 sectors of critical infrastructure, which the Department of Homeland Defense (DHS) defines as those “assets, systems, and networks…so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof” [23]. Since 2013, a major programmatic goal of DHS has been to improve the overall resilience of the nation’s critical infrastructure, which a presidential policy directive has defined as “the ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions” [24,25].

The Department of Defense (DoD) is charged with assisting civil authorities in responding to major domestic incidents, as it did after Harvey, in response to Hurricane Irma (which struck Florida September 10, 2017), and after Hurricane Maria (which hit Puerto Rico September 20, 2017) [26]. Because stable access to energy supplies underlies a military installation’s resilience, any potential disruption in the energy system is of particular concern to both DHS and DoD [24,26,27]. In 2015, the first-ever Quadrennial Energy Review characterized the mitigation of energy disruptions as being no less than “fundamental” to infrastructure resilience, because of the growing dependency of other critical infrastructure sectors on the energy system [6]. Indeed, when DoD’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) began preparations for Harvey’s landfall, one of the first acts it took was to stage 160 tanker trucks carrying gasoline and diesel fuel at Fort Hood, Texas, to support Federal Emergency Management Agency relief efforts [28].

However, much of the energy-related literature focused on critical infrastructure and resilience is aimed at protecting and restoring the nation’s electrical generation, transmission, and distribution network (known collectively as “the grid”) [6,24,29,30]. DoD efforts aimed at improving energy resilience also
typically address electrical power, specifically on military bases [31]. The deployment of advanced command and control “smart” technologies—as well as large investments by electric utilities for hurricane preparedness—has yielded significant improvements in the resilience of electrical power systems. After Hurricane Irma, electrical service was restored in Florida significantly faster than after Hurricane Wilma hit the state in 2005, even though nearly twice as many total customers lost power due to Irma [32]. The widespread addition of variable electricity generation capacity (from renewable sources like wind or solar) has also made the grid more resilient in the face of disruption [33].

Far less attention has been paid to the resilience of the nation’s petroleum processing and transportation sectors—especially to the continued provision of refined petroleum products in disaster zones [34]. The petroleum industry along the Gulf Coast has successfully coped with major tropical storms and hurricanes for decades [35], mostly because the same geographical characteristics that make the region attractive for oil and gas firms—proximity to marine export terminals, and low, flat spaces for petrochemical plant siting—make the area vulnerable to storm damage [1,22]. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which struck the Louisiana and Texas coasts in 2005, made those vulnerabilities clear. Together, they caused an unprecedented shutdown of 30 percent of the nation’s refinery capacity, and—as happened in the wake of Harvey—gasoline prices spiked around the country [6,27]. Since 2005, largely as a result of the shale oil boom, the concentration of the nation’s downstream infrastructure along the Gulf Coast has only intensified [36].

Petroleum processing facilities are a major component of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) management of the federal National Infrastructure Protection Plan for the energy sector [23]. Liquid petroleum fuels will remain a major source of power in the United States for decades to come. In 2016, finished motor gasoline (excluding diesel gasoline) represented 18 percent of total primary delivered energy consumption, in any form, in the United States, and DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that figure to remain above 15 percent through at least 2026 [37]. In the transportation sector, finished motor gasoline accounts for 61 percent of total delivered energy, with the bulk of the remainder accounted for by diesel for both automotive and off-road use (typically in locomotives) [37]. In Fiscal Year 2014, DoD consumed 87.4 million barrels of fuel in supporting and deploying missions worldwide, including training and other domestic operations [38]. In the event of natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, or Maria, emergency response and recovery vehicles—whether civilian, federal, or military—will operate almost exclusively on refined liquid petroleum fuels.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve

The comparison between the effects of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and those of the one-two punch from Katrina-Rita in 2005 is an instructive one. Both storm events inflicted major damage on petrochemical infrastructure, shutting down refineries for weeks and causing the release of millions of pounds of industrial chemicals and hydrocarbons into the environment [22,39].  Both events also triggered the use of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) [3]. Constructed in 1977, the SPR is a government-owned series of deep underground storage facilities carved out of the large salt deposits that naturally pockmark the Gulf Coast [3]. Four SPR storage sites dot the Texas and Louisiana coast, each holding between 70 and 250 million barrels of unrefined crude oil [3].

Figure 2: Airman 1st Class Daniel Langer, a 92nd Logistics Readiness Squadron fuels distribution operator, pulls fuel flow sensing lines from an R-12 Fuel Truck in preparation of a KC135 Stratotanker aircraft refueling operation March 2, 2015, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.Fuels distribution operators work in the Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants flight responsible forfilling KC-135 Stratotankers with fuel both for aircraft use and refueling other planes fromall branches of the U.S. military as well assome from allied nations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. David Liapis)

Connected to pipeline, rail, and marine terminals, SPR oil releases can be directed to commercial refineries or to tankers for oceangoing export [40]. At current rates of national consumption, the SPR holds enough crude to supply the country for approximately 33 days [18]. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, DOE approved six emergency requests from refiners to access crude oil supplies, totaling 9.8 million barrels. Days later, an additional 30 million barrels were authorized for release and offered for sale, but only 11 million barrels of that total were purchased by commercial entities [40]. In 2017, less than a week after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, DOE released 500,000 barrels of crude oil from the West Hackberry SPR site in Louisiana, directed to the Phillips 66 refinery in Lake Charles [18]. DOE later authorized the future release of an additional 5 million barrels to local refineries, if needed [41].

The SPR is a critical contributor to the energy security of the United States and its ability to respond to terrorist attacks, overseas conflicts, and natural disasters [40]. In the case of Harvey, however, where the critical facilities required to process crude oil from the SPR into usable products suffered relatively extensive damage, the release of SPR crude had but limited effect [42].

After Harvey, there was an abundance—not a shortage—of crude oil available. Damage to marine oil delivery terminals on the Gulf Coast temporarily prevented tankers from delivering their product, leaving 28 tankers containing more than 18 million barrels of oil idling in a holding pattern nearby; the delivery ports reopened long before the refineries could return to normal operations [43]. Even though crude production from offshore fields in the Gulf of Mexico was depressed due to the storm, the number of disabled refineries meant that those still operating generally had ample oil at their disposal [36,44]. Nationwide, commercial crude oil inventories before Harvey’s arrival were already higher than the annual average for the August/September period, and the availability of oil was reflected in lower prices for West Texas International crude [44,45].

Even the releases of SPR crude after Hurricane Katrina were not made to directly relieve an oil supply crunch but occurred as part of a coordinated release with the International Energy Agency (IEA). In exchange, the IEA released stocks of refined petroleum products to fill a major gasoline supply gap in the
southeastern United States [6,36]. Moreover, had a domestic oil supply crunch been urgent, the SPR was not well-placed to provide timely help, as it suffered “significant” damage from Katrina, taking 20 days for its first release of crude to physically move out of SPR terminals [6]. Deliveries of the IEA’s refined products imported from Europe also arrived with some difficulty, as much of the Southeast had to be supplied through truck shipments made hundreds of miles inland from Atlantic ports [6,9]. DoD continued supplying refined liquid fuels for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida for more than 18 months [46].

Strategies to prevent or mitigate such acute shortages of motor gasoline are likely to fall along one of two lines [47]. First, refinery facilities can be hardened against hurricane-force winds, storm surges, and extreme rainfall totals [6]. Second, strategic, government-owned or -managed stocks of finished
motor gasoline can be established at critical points in the petroleum distribution network, providing on-demand supplies of the fuel in a manner similar to the SPR. Recent advances in research and development related to each strategy are discussed below.

Hardening Refinery Facilities

The unique, rainfall-heavy nature of Hurricane Harvey demonstrated not all major storm events are created equal. During Katrina and Rita, although refineries sustained some damage from high winds and rain, the primary source of damage was storm surge-related flooding [36]. Where product storage tanks
failed, wind was typically the culprit [48]. The storms ripped off pieces of insulating cladding from many storage tanks before turning them into high-speed airborne projectiles [48]. Refineries shut down as they lost access to electrical power from the grid; only after power was restored could the plant begin the lengthy process of black-starting its equipment [9,27]. After the 2005 hurricane season, downstream operators took substantive steps to remedy these risks, and came through Hurricane Ike in 2008 relatively unscathed [36].

Figure 4: Overview of the petroleum exploration, production, refinement, and distribution networks. Note how refineries are the linchpin—or bottleneck—for the supply of liquid fuels [74].

Many plants installed wind braces and structural girders on key pieces of equipment post-Katrina, and a limited number installed portable emergency generators to power critical command and control equipment during outages [49]. The most substantive changes included the building or strengthening of berms and levees around the plants, and the raising of control rooms above expected storm surge levels [6,49]. However, Hurricane Harvey presented a unique threat to Gulf Coast infrastructure, one to which the lessons learned after Katrina and Rita were not applicable. With Harvey, it was extreme levels of flooding—due to the storm’s unexpected loitering over Houston and its unprecedented total rainfall—that caused most refinery damage [50]. Harvey’s rain both flooded refineries sited outside of storm surge areas, and exacerbated flooding at plants within it. This suggests that refineries located inland of even the most powerful storm surge may require storm hardening preparations that include high-capacity water drainage pumps, for example, to “bail out” drowned equipment [47].

Many of the technologies best suited to “hardening” a refinery have less to do with protecting it from storm damage—which is not cost-effective on a wide scale—than they do with allowing for the quick restoration of operations, a key component of resilience. Second to the draining or removal of floodwaters, the next most important post-storm action for a plant is to restore its sustained access to electrical power.

In 2017, the second installment of the DOE-sponsored Quadrennial Energy Review stressed the need for a “strategic transformer reserve” designed to help restore damaged electrical power transformers and/or substations [30]. Because replacement transformers can take many months to fabricate and assemble, a downed substation is a critical vulnerability to energy system resilience. Teams from the DHS Science and Technology Directorate have teamed up in recent years with operators and manufacturers in the power industry to test a rapid response capability to provide replacement 345-kilovolt transformers, with promising results [30]. More applicable to a Hurricane Harvey-like situation, though, are recent design concepts that seek to integrate a replacement transformer fully into a modularized tractor-trailer, or even a train locomotive—allowing for mobile and truly rapid restoration of power to facilities otherwise inaccessible to work crews [30,51].

Extended Gasoline Storage

A shortage of refined petroleum products like motor gasoline has been shown to have deleterious effects on post-disaster recovery and relief efforts [52]. While midstream petroleum companies keep somewhat significant volumes of gasoline in reserve, these inventories function only as working stock. In other words, they are quickly dispatched to respond to just-in-time shifts in regional demand, and such inventories may amount to just a few days’ supply at best [19]. In response to Hurricane Harvey, refineries in the Northeast opted to redirect their expected gasoline receipts down to the southeastern United States, the Caribbean, and Mexico, to compensate for the lack of gasoline exports from the Gulf Coast [19]. By doing so, they quickly used all gasoline volumes stored as working inventory; at least two refinery distributors in the area had completely run out of gasoline less than a week after Harvey made landfall [19].

After “Superstorm” Sandy hit New York City in October 2012, first responders experienced a severe crunch in their access to motor gasoline. Refineries, pipeline nodes, and other parts of the petroleum distribution network were flooded, damaged, or lacking power; as a result, New York City suffered widespread gasoline shortages, lasting up to 30 days in some locales [53]. First response and other recovery efforts, even with priority access, suffered from the shortage [6,54]. Two refineries in New Jersey were shut down for over three weeks, with a combined capacity of 300,000 bbl/d, while four others were forced to operate at lower rates [53].

In order to prevent a similar scenario from reoccurring, in 2014 the DOE collaborated with the DLA within DoD to set up storage and distribution facilities for four stockpiles of refined motor gasoline [55]. The Northeast Gasoline Supply Reserve (NGSR), as the terminals came to be known, holds one million barrels of gasoline, and has further resilience-oriented characteristics built into its operation. Each terminal, for instance, must have backup electricity generation on-site, and multiple methods for exporting gasoline in the event of an emergency (whether by truck, pipeline, or marine vessel) [56].

The NGSR is not the first time of a domestic refined fuel supply has been establishedin the United States. In 2000, DOE set up a similar system, the Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve (NEHHOR), a series of three terminals between New Jersey and Massachusetts that holds one million barrels of heating oil, or approximately 10 days of supply [57]. In fact, the NEHHOR was tapped for the first time during Sandy, and DLA personnel moved roughly four million gallons of heating oil for distribution in the storm’s wake, from the NEHHOR and other stocks [56,58].

The NGSR holds tremendous benefits for resilience, especially in the guaranteed provision of gasoline to first responders, including any active military or reserve troops called up to assist in responding to a major disaster. However, with even a million barrels stored, if tapped, the NGSR could supply the East Coast for only about eight hours’ worth of consumption [19].

Gasoline is a highly refined product of crude oil, and unfortunately for those who might wish to store it for extended periods, begins to degrade as soon as it is produced [59]. Gasoline easily evaporates at room temperatures, and over an extended period, oxidation of the fuel breaks down its long-chain hydrocarbons (C4 to C12) and increases the amount of polymeric “gum” present in the fuel [60]. Successful storage of refined products like gasoline incurs significantly higher per-barrel costs than crude oil, and requires, at minimum, continual rotation and replenishment of inventories [61]. Technical and economic methods to do so have been modeled in the past [62], and the NGSR has to date proved a technical and strategic success.

Scientific research into the chemical and physical causes behind liquid fuel degradation has advanced in the past three years in particular [63], and work completed in September 2017 has demonstrated experimentally that gasoline storage containers lined with tin resist fuel degradation better than containers fabricated wholly from steel or polyethylene, two materials commonly used in the petroleum industry [60]. Further research into the mechanics of extended gasoline storage may make the deployment of strategic refined fuels reserves significantly less costly.

Artificial Intelligence Assisted Modeling

The suite of software and technologies known as artificial intelligence (AI) also shows exceptional promise in aiding both meteorological and energy experts in modeling scenarios related to hurricane damage and gasoline supply. AI-assisted models and simulations can allow for more advanced prediction capabilities than are currently available in tropical storm- or hurricane-level forecasting [64]. They may also provide human operators with a better-informed suite of potential hazards or scenarios upon which to base appropriate risk assessments.

For instance, the possibility that a powerful storm the size of Harvey would linger for days—or follow an odd, dual-landfall storm track—did not appear a likely scenario before August 2017 [47]. In 2015, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories conducted a major study of the nation’s liquid fuels production and distribution infrastructure, using a series of high-powered computer models to simulate seven events that could stress the system [65]. Using inputs from the National Transportation Fuels Model and models from the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center, the Sandia team assessed how a hypothetical Category 5 hurricane that made landfall directly over Houston would affect the liquid fuels system.

Most notably, the study modeled just four refineries in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area would be inundated; those refineries have a total capacity of 1.5 million bbl/day of crude oil [65]. While the study also accounted for fairly widespread electrical grid outages, it underestimated the amount of rainfall,
rather than storm surge alone, that could substantially flood plants and shut down refinery operations [65]. And, notably, the scenario assumed always a straight-track progression of the storm, from the Gulf of Mexico to the interior of Texas.

Figure 6: Puerto Rico National Guardsmen patrol a highway in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017, after Hurricane Maria caused extensive flooding. (Puerto Rico National Guard photo/Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos

A similar scenario analysis performed in 2014 for DOE also analyzed the effects of a major storm striking the heart of Galveston Bay and Houston, as Hurricane Harvey did [53]. This model posited that a Category 3 storm, also following a straight-track storm progression, would shut down between 1.1 and 4.5 million bbl/day of refining capacity; a large and unwieldy range [53].

Finally, AI-assisted energy models could help to significantly reduce the cost and infrastructural burden of systematically storing refined gasoline reserves at critical nodes [64]. DLA Energy is currently collaborating with the University of Arkansas Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution (CELDi), in order to build out and test a major network simulation model, for DoD to use in determining fuel choke points for both normal and wartime operations [66]. A CELDi-type model, integrating select AI components, could optimize the structure, geography, and fuel-refresh characteristics of a dedicated gasoline reserve system like the Northeast Gasoline Supply Reserve, potentially on a wider scale.


Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria dealt a strong, but nowhere near fatal, blow to the United States’ domestic supply of motor gasoline. However, both refining capacity and distribution systems have come under great strain in response. Weeks after Hurricane Harvey’s landfall, as the Gulf Coast’s refineries slowly returned to life, commercial gasoline and distillate inventories in the United States were drawn down to their lowest  levels in years [67]. Those low inventories have come at the same time that the United States is exporting record-high volumes of crude oil, at just under 1.5 million barrels per day near the end of September 2017 [68]. Florida felt such an acute shortage of gasoline in some places that some local and national leaders have already called for the establishment of a “Florida Gasoline Supply Reserve” [69,70]. In the American territory of Puerto Rico, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria has irreparably destroyed the island’s electrical system. However, the need for refined petroleum fuel products is far more severe than that for electricity [71]. Low gasoline inventories on the island ahead of the storm, broken distribution networks, and damaged marine oil terminals have made gasoline and diesel fuel as good as “liquid gold” in Puerto Rico [72].

The resilience of the nation’s supply of liquid fuels is likely to receive much attention in the years to come. Already, the National Petroleum Council, a federal advisory committee established in the 1940s, has initiated a study at the request of DOE into the changing dynamics of the United States’ oil and natural gas transportation infrastructure [73]. Its charge is to determine just how vulnerable—or resilient—the petrochemical industry concentrated along the Gulf Coast is to major storms or other infrastructure disruptions [73].


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