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Gas prices surge after Harvey strikes refineries

September 2, 2017 at 5:31 PM EDT
Gas prices have jumped in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, with about 20 percent of refinery capacity along the Texas Gulf Coast offline. The national average for regular gas is now $2.59 a gallon, 23 cents higher than a week ago. Travis Bubenik of Houston Public Media joins Nick Schifrin for more on how the storm has affected the energy industry
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NICK SCHIFRIN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Back in Houston, the country’s fourth largest city is a hub of the nation’s oil refineries, and, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, gas prices are up. AAA says the national average for regular gas is now $2.59 a gallon. That’s 23 cents higher than just a week ago. The reason: Harvey has pushed more than 20 percent of refining capacity along with Texas Gulf Coast offline, and it may take a while to get back to full speed.

For more on that, I am joined from Houston by Travis Bubenik, an energy and environment reporter with “Houston Public Media”.

Travis, thank you very much for taking the time.

As I just said, we’ve got about 20 percent of capacity off. What is the prognosis for getting some of that back on line?

TRAVIS BUBENIK, ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT REPORTER, HOUSTON PUBLIC MEDIA: So, the energy department said as of this morning, that there are still 10 refineries along the gulf coast that are completely shut down after Harvey. A number of others are still slowed as of some morning. But, you know, the big picture story is they’re starting to get back online. And that’s going to be a slow, arduous, and potentially hazardous, if these refineries aren’t, you know, extremely careful in following protocols, process over the next few days, maybe even weeks.

SCHIFRIN: You said hazardous. There are some environmental concerns in that area. For example, oil spills and leaks, and what you just mentioned. How are authorities going to deal with those environmental concerns, given that there are still rescues going on?

BUBENIK: I think they’re going to make a long list of them, and then have to go investigate. I mean, the TCEQ, our state environmental regulators, the EPA, they’re, of course, you know, encouraging the public to report anything like oil spills, oil sheens on the water you see in floodwaters. The Texas Railroad Commission, our oil and gas regulators, are fielding, you know, reports about spills or leakages or anything like that from oil and gas operators in south Texas, again, closer to Corpus Christi where the storm made landfall.

Meanwhile, there are just sort of the everyday environmental hazards of floodwaters being spread out across this huge metropolitan area. Texas A&M I think recently did some sampling around the Houston area and found E. coli bacteria levels in the floodwaters that are just way higher than what’s safe for swimming in, let alone eating or drinking anything that’s been contaminated by these floodwaters.

So, you know, it’s a nasty situation across Houston, and that’s not to mention the spikes in air pollution that are going to naturally come from these refineries starting back up because it’s just kind of a dirty process to do that. And that’s something that environmental groups here in Houston and Texas are already tracking. They’re seeing, you know, pollution spikes that we haven’t seen in the city, you know, for more than a decade in some instances.

SCHIFRIN: We’ve also seen some chemical fires at these chemical plants. Why aren’t authorities there better prepared for something like Harvey at those plants?

BUBENIK: You know, I don’t know if it’s necessarily about the authorities being better prepared because they evacuated this area per the recommendation of this company, Arkema, northeast of Houston. But I think open question is, why wasn’t the company better prepared? I mean, the company said from the get-go, you know, we never expected six feet of water in our facility.

I guess because it had never happened. But there are, you know, a number of questions — I mean, the reasons these fires broke out is because the chemicals lost refrigeration. They lost power and they lost backup power.

The question, to me, anyway, most immediately is, OK, if you never expected six feet of water, do you expect it now? Or do company goes from this point and sort of treat this storm as a fluke? I mean, I think that’s the open question.

“Houston Public Media’s” Travis Bubenik, thank you very much.

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