Houston, you have a problem: climate change


Houston is an oil town. Houstonians are proud of their city and its flares, fractionation towers, tanks, ships and bilge smells, even if it means we put up with the occasional fireball or chemical spill.

But it is also the Bayou City, a low-lying patchwork of bungalows, malls and skyscrapers that sprawls across the coastal prairie. To angry hurricanes spiralling over the Gulf of Mexico, Houston looks like a set of bowling pins.

Unfortunately for us, climate change threatens to upset this precarious balance of economy and geography.

Storms now routinely break the 500-year rainfall mark, while our steamy summers are getting warmer and extending beyond the changing of the seasons.

Houstonians are watching as Democratic presidential candidates compete on the pace of plans to move the country to net zero emissions of greenhouse gases.

Roughly a third of the economy of Houston (and a bit less in Texas overall) is derived from oil and natural gas. So, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposed ban on fracking, for instance, looks to many here like a threat to strangle the economy.

Naturally, climate change is a sensitive topic. I attended an oil industry conference here a year ago on the “energy transition” at which no speaker mentioned climate change.

Houstonians still compartmentalise the effects as “weird weather” or, less accurately, “the new normal”. When climate comes up, many either play down the issue or argue that those seeking relief have an ulterior motive.

This is negligent. Houston’s main industry contributes to damaging the climate for everyone on earth, including the very folks it employs. Denial has left us flat-footed.

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More than 300,000 homes and other buildings were flooded or damaged in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey dumped 60 inches of rain on the city, causing tens of thousands to lose their homes, at least temporarily. Local offices of Saudi Aramco and BP were inundated.

Losing your home or office is bad enough. But the spectre of a crackdown on emissions scares Houstonians even more.

It’s not that we haven’t noticed the weather getting less and less familiar. Yale University’s nationwide climate attitudes survey found that Houstonians were more likely than average Americans to say global warming would “harm me personally”.

It’s just that many of us think the price of climate repair will be paid disproportionately by our city, through job losses and shrinking home values. Global oil demand, many point out, is still growing.

That may be why, in that same Yale survey, Houstonians were less likely than average to say that the government should “regulate CO2 as a pollutant.”

In some ways, Texas’ energy industry is its own worst enemy. This year, Permian basin oil producers are on pace to flare or vent almost 7bn cubic meters of natural gas, data from Rystad Energy show. That’s as much as Norway consumes.

And that’s just the Permian. There’s more wanton waste of gas in Texas’ Eagle Ford shale.

In Texas, flaring and venting is done without penalty, via routine permits handed out by the Texas Railroad Commission.

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At its core, flaring is deliberate aggravation of climate change. Companies do this because they and regulators agree that responsible capture and marketing of natural gas should not get in the way of increased oil production.

When regulators let companies pollute like it’s 1959, they invite dramatic proposals like Ms Warren’s fracking ban.

Houstonians are split on Donald Trump’s climate stance. On the one hand, some oil executives and their backers have exulted in Mr Trump’s disregard for regulation and the environment. On the other, many here fear the oil industry’s behaviour will cost it its social — perhaps even legal — license to operate.

Houston and its industry need to find a less reckless way to do business. We need to accept our role in climate damage and prepare our city and industry for the next phase.

That means taxing or regulating carbon and other greenhouse gases and recognising that the way oil and gas is being produced, sold and consumed is making matters worse.

Houston, with all its engineering, geology and offshore expertise, could be Ground Zero for diversifying into climate solutions.

But too few Texans will discuss it.

Houston’s — and America’s — failure to come to terms with climate has multiple ramifications.

“Denial, denial, denial, that’s been the mantra,” says my colleague Jim Blackburn, a professor of environmental law at Rice University in Houston. “I can’t argue ‘climate change’ at the state level because we’ve got a governor who doesn’t admit to it, a lieutenant-governor who doesn’t admit to it, and a legislature that’s dominated by the oil and gas industry, so they won’t accept it.”

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As he would say, the numbers are changing. The more we ignore it, the more we are setting ourselves up to fail.

Jim Krane is the Wallace S. Wilson Fellow for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston. He is the author of the 2019 book Energy Kingdoms

The Commodities Note is an online commentary on the industry from the Financial Times



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