GAO: Climate Change Poses Serious Risk to American Energy Systems

Read time: 5 mins

America’s energy infrastructure is dangerously vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a new report released by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

The report, requested by a group of Democratic senators lead by Energy and Natural Resources Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon, breaks down in detail how all aspects of our energy infrastructure — from extraction through transportation through distribution — are even now being compromised by rising seas and water shortages and more extreme weather events and other impacts of climate change.

U.S. energy infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to a range of climate change impacts–particularly infrastructure in areas prone to severe weather and water shortages. Climate changes are projected to affect infrastructure throughout all major stages of the energy supply chain, thereby increasing the risk of disruptions,” the report explains.

The GAO describes as matter-of-fact the worsening domestic impacts of climate change — which so many elected officials in the Senate continue to stubbornly deny — and uses scientifically rigorous analysis to figure out just how much trouble it spells for our electricity and gasoline supplies.

While the report, Energy Infrastructure Risks and Adaptation Efforts, does not explicitly note that the very energy system that is imperiled by climate change is also largely to blame for climate change, the tragic irony of that fact is clear throughout.

Climate Change Poses Threat Across All Stages of Energy Infrastructure

Throughout the first half of the report, the GAO closely examines the four main stages of energy infrastructure and assesses their vulnerability to climate impacts. Using data and assessments from the National Research Council (NRC) and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the report draws the following conclusions:

Climate Change Can Impact Resource Extraction and Processing Infrastructure: “Much of the infrastructure used to extract, refine, and process, and prospect for fuels – including natural gas and oil platforms, oil refineries, and natural gas processing plants—is located offshore or near the coast, making it particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme weather, and other impacts,” the report claimed.

Climate Change Can Impact Fuel Transportation and Storage Infrastructure: The USGCRP assessed impacts on transportation infrastructure that includes pipeline systems that carry natural gas and oil; trucks, railways, and barges that transport coal, oil and petroleum products; as well as storage facilities, such as aboveground tanks, underground salt caverns, and aquifers. They found natural gas and oil pipelines to be partcularly vulnerable, citing examples from Hurricane Katrina and ExxonMobil's Silvertip pipeline that was washed out by floods in Montana.

Climate Change Can Impact Electricity Generation Infrastructure: The GAO declares authoritatively that “climate change will have a significant impact on the nation’s electricity generation facilities, including fossil fuel and nuclear power plants—which together produce the vast majority of the nation’s electricity—as well as renewable energy infrastructure such as wind turbines and hydropower dams.” The climate impacts that pose the biggest threat to utility-grade electricity generators are diminishing water supplies, warming temperatures, and severe weather. 

Climate Change Can Impact Electricity Transmission and Distribution Infrastructure: According to the report, “transmission and distribution lines and substations are susceptible to damage from extreme winds, ice, lightning strikes, wildfires, landslides, and flooding.” 

The Energy-Water-Temperature Nexus

After laying out the threats, stage by stage, the GAO references a series of the Office's earlier reports on the “energy-water nexus,” which have shown how water and energy are “inextricably linked and mutually dependent.” Water shortages will significantly impact energy supply, by both slowing down extraction of raw fuels and production of electricity, not only at hydroelectric plants, but also at the coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants that require considerable inputs of water. 


To this energy-water nexus, the new GAO report adds in a new factor: rising temperatures. 

Citing both NRC and USGCRP research, the report describes how “[o]ver the past four decades, the demand for cooling has risen and the demand for heating has declined,” and that “[a]s average temperatures rise and extreme weather events—such as heat waves—become more common, these trends are expected to continue.”

Assessing Current Adaptation Trends

In the eyes of the fiercely objective GAO, adaptation to climate change is neither an acknowledgement of defeat nor a waste of money. It's simply a matter of necessity. The second half of this report, takes a look at a few case studies of adaptation measures already in place, and then evaluates the areas most in need of improvement. 

It might come as news to industry-funded climate denying shills that big energy companies not only acknowledge the threat posed by climate change, but are already actively working to deal with the impacts. The GAO spotlights Entergy, the Colonial Pipeline Corporation, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Florida Power and Light for their ambitious climate adaptation measures. (Though, again, no mention is made of how the fossil fuels burned and transported by these companies are exacerbating the problem.) 

Finally, while making some recommendations, the GAO grants that the “federal role in directly adapting energy infrastructure is limited,” because the federal government doesn't own or operate most of such infrastructure. But the Office does prescribe better regulatory oversight, and an improvement of market incentives to securing infrastructure, as well as disincentives for those laggard companies that continue to build vulnerable energy systems. 

The report concludes the sobering acknowledgement that the federal government “is just beginning to engage in more coordinated, multiagency efforts to better understand how climate change might impact federal facilities and their mission goals that intersect with the energy industry.”

In other words, these nascent efforts to build in protections for the existing energy systems have a long way to go. Though the GAO doesn't go out of its way to discuss the promise and security of renewable, distributed energy systems, others have.

Perhaps Senator Wyden and his colleagues will request a GAO report assessing the role of renewables and decentralized energy systems in climate adaptation. 

Photo: FEMA

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