Democratic News

October 31, 2012

Impacts of Sea Level Rise

With post-Sandy response, recovery and rebuilding now underway, including New York City’s subway system, it is worth reminding reporters about the hearing that the Senate Energy Committee held last spring on the very topic of real-world impacts that rising sea levels have on domestic infrastructures.  “Sea level rise takes the current level of vulnerability and multiplies it,” Chairman Bingaman presaged in his opening statement (below).  “These impacts … are not theoretical and they are not disputed and they are not in the distant future.”

 Among the five witnesses at that April 19 hearing was Mayor Bloomberg’s deputy director of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability.  Click here to read Adam Freed’s testimony, and here to watch a  webcast of the hearing.

 NB: Reporters who regularly follow Senate Energy Committee will recognize a pattern in Bingaman’s knack for seeing around corners, looking ahead at emerging threats and problems rather than just reacting to them after the fact:

 --  Climate change and wildfires in the West was a hot topic this summer; Bingaman has chaired hearings on this topic as far back as 2007;

--  Induced seismicity from underground injection of fluids is another big issue; Bingaman asked the National Academy of Sciences to study this in June 2010 -- well before the publicized earthquakes in Ohio and elsewhere – and chaired the hearing on the report when it was released in June 2012;

--  Helium supplies – Bingaman wrote the bill with Sen. John Barrasso and put the issue on the map with a hearing in May 2012;

--  Exports of natural gas – big topic in 2012, but Bingaman chaired the hearing exploring both sides of the issue in November 2011;

--  Cybersecurity on the electric grid – a current focus in Congress, but Bingaman chaired the first hearing on this in May 2009 and had legislation developed at that time.

Opening Statement of Chairman Bingaman

“Today, we have a hearing on the impacts of sea level rise on domestic energy and water infrastructure.

“Over the past century, a tremendous amount of high-value infrastructure has been built along the coastlines of the United States. This infrastructure serves the needs of coastal communities and is the foundation for developing much of our abundant coastal energy resource.

 “Much of that infrastructure has been built in low-lying areas that were already prone to flooding from extreme weather.  That’s become even more at-risk as sea levels have risen.  About 5 million Americans now live in coastal areas that are less than 4 feet above sea level.  There are nearly 300 high-value energy facilities standing on land below that level. These energy facilities include power plants, oil and gas refineries, and natural gas infrastructure. Recent history has shown that not only is this infrastructure already vulnerable to extreme weather, but also that when coastal energy assets are compromised, the energy disruption affects the entire economy.

 “Sea level rise takes the current level of vulnerability and multiplies it.  When sea levels rise, the storm surge associated with extreme storms gets even worse, and even an average storm can have above-average consequences. Water systems that were designed based on a lower sea level may not function properly. Saltwater intrudes on freshwater resources that communities have depended on for years. 

 “These impacts from sea level rise are not theoretical and they are not disputed and they are not in the distant future. They are being confronted today in places like Louisiana and Florida. The affected communities there are already paying substantial costs to try to address them.

 “As the planet has warmed from human emissions of greenhouse gases, the rate of sea level rise has accelerated.  It is expected to continue doing so.  Improved scientific understanding of ice sheets and glaciers has led to higher projections of sea level rise for this century, with the highest estimates indicating that several feet of rise are possible. When placed in the context of the continued rapid development along the coasts, these increased projections of sea level rise are cause for concern and merit consideration by this Congress. 

 “It’s no secret that the discussion of climate change, of which sea level rise is just one aspect, has become highly politicized here in the Congress. Outside of the halls of Congress, though, entities that depend on infrastructure at risk from sea level rise are taking the threat very seriously, and are incorporating the best science into their long-term plans.

 “The Department of Defense, in its 2010 ‘Quadrennial Defense Review Report,’ highlighted the more than 30 U.S. military installations that are already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels.  The integrated energy company Entergy carried out a ‘Gulf Coast Adaptation Study’ to assess and manage risks to its energy assets from climate change.  Today we have a witness with us from Mayor Bloomberg’s office in New York City to discuss the efforts that New York is undertaking to prepare for elevated sea levels. These examples are evidence that those that will be most directly affected by climate change do not have the luxury of delaying their planning process until the politics are more favorable. 

 “The discussion that we’re having today is an important one. Witnesses will be testifying about real-world impacts. I hope that this hearing contributes to the restarting of a national conversation on this important topic.”

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For more information, please contact

Bill Wicker at 202.224.5243


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