Wind, water and oil

August 30, 2005

AS LOUISIANA, Mississippi and Alabama today cope with the terrible material and human devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the entire nation -- while thankful that the hurricane was not as lethal as feared -- braces for a fierce oil-price storm in its aftermath.

As Katrina blew in, the prices of crude oil, gasoline, natural gas and heating oil hit all-time highs. The Category 5 storm forced the evacuation of oil and natural gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico that account for as much as 30 percent of U.S. production, the closing of the Louisiana port that handles 11 percent of U.S. crude imports, and the shuttering of gulf coast oil refineries that are the major source for East Coast markets.

The worldwide supply chains for oil and natural gas -- already stretched to capacity and vulnerable to the slightest political tremors -- are no less fragile in the face of savage formations of wind and water.

It turns out that if below-sea-level New Orleans has been a national disaster just waiting to happen, so also is the dense concentration of energy production, importing and refining along the gulf coast -- one with concrete national security implications.

The damage and deaths left by this storm naturally touch a nation's heart. But the broader impact of this storm will most likely have to do with oil. And, not tangentially, this is also a story that in part begins with oil dependence.

For the last week, water temperatures in much of the gulf have been higher than average, as warm as 90 degrees. Such warmer waters fuel the formation and ferocity of hurricanes. Warmer oceans are an inseparable by-product of global warming, and it's foolish to ignore the link to the burning of fossil fuels.

In coming days and weeks, if Hurricane Katrina drives further home this nation's Faustian overdependence on oil, it also should highlight the environmental damage that results from that dependence. From oil to oil, this storm -- the fiercest to strike the gulf coast in decades -- should put the spotlight on a vicious cycle in which America has trapped itself.

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