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Climate Change Endangers Oil, Gas Infrastructure, Says DOE

Natural gas and oil production is vulnerable to decreasing water availability and operations in Arctic Alaska to thawing permafrost, both of which are potential impacts of climate change, according to a report issued Thursday by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

"Increasing temperatures, decreasing water availability, more intense storm events, and sea level rise will each independently, and in some cases in combination, affect the ability of the United States to produce and transmit electricity from fossil, nuclear, and existing and emerging renewable energy sources," said the 83-page "U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather" report. "These changes are also projected to affect the nation's demand for energy and it's ability to access, produce, and distribute oil and natural gas."

Annual temperatures across the United States have increased by about 1.5 degrees over the last century, and 2012 was both the warmest year on record in the contiguous United States and saw the hottest month since the country started keeping records in 1895.

Such climate change could leave oil and gas production "vulnerable to decreasing water availability given the volumes of water required for enhanced oil recovery, hydraulic fracturing and refining," DOE said. In addition, fuel transportation by rail and barge "is susceptible to increased interruption and delay during more frequent periods of drought and flooding," and thermoelectric power generation facilities are at risk from decreasing water availability and increasing ambient air and water temperatures."

DOE also found that thawing permafrost in Arctic Alaska could "cause damage to existing infrastructure and restrict seasonal access" for onshore oil and gas operations. At the same time, offshore operations could benefit from a longer sea ice-free season.

Other implications of climate change identified in the report include increased demand for electricity for cooling and decreased demand for natural gas and fuel oil for heating; increased risk to energy infrastructure located along coastlines from sea level rise and increasing intensity of storms; less reliable electricity transmission and distribution systems due to higher ambient air temperatures; and changes to the productivity of renewable energy sources, particularly hydropower, bioenergy and concentrating solar power, due to changing precipitation patterns, droughts and rising temperatures.

But it isn't all bad news, according to DOE.

"While it is expected that climate change will, on balance, create more challenges and costs for the energy sector, there are potential benefits to the energy sector as well. Examples include reduced average heating loads during the winter in parts of the United States, such as New England, and the opening of new regions to offshore oil and gas exploration due to shrinking sea ice cover in the Arctic."

Federal, state and local governments and the private sector have already begun to address the threat of climate change, but "the pace, scale, and scope of combined public and private efforts to improve the climate preparedness and resilience of the energy sector will need to increase, given the challenges identified," said the report.

Water-efficient technologies for fuels production and hardening of existing facilities and structures, including oil and gas platforms, to help them survive wildfires, storms, floods and sea level rises, are among the future technology needs identified by DOE.

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