Houston's major oil refineries were flooded during Hurricane HarveyHouston's oil industry facilities would be inundated by a major hurricane storm surge, but the project designed to protect them has not gotten off the ground. Photo credit: Win McNamee

By Seamus McGraw

Environmentalists and activists who fretted that the devastation of Hurricane Harvey would spur powerful political interests in Texas to fast-track plans for an elaborate and costly seawall along most of the state’s imperiled Gulf Coast have, at least for now, found an unlikely ally in their bid to slow things down.

His name is Donald J. Trump.

The president, not generally regarded by environmentalists as a friend to their cause, threw cold water on the quick march toward the construction of the so-called Ike Dike. The dike is actually a series of storm walls, sea gates and levees from the southern end of Galveston Island to the lowlands north of the Houston Ship Channel, proposed years ago to protect Houston, and the heart of the oil industry, from massive storm surges.

After a request from Gov. Greg Abbott for $61 billion worth of relief, the Trump administration countered with a proposal to spend just $44 billion, with none of it earmarked for the coastal spine project. In addition, the administration offered a $12 million pot for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico to fight over for flood risk mitigation grants.

As the Houston Chronicle noted in an editorial on Nov. 21, “that entire program isn’t enough to fund an Ike Dike, let alone the other much-needed flood prevention projects documented in Gov. Greg Abbott’s $61 billion proposal.”

Predictably, the administration’s offer brought howls of outrage from the state’s elected officials. Sen. John Cornyn called it “inadequate” and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called it “a formula for failure.”

But environmentalists and activists breathed a sigh of relief. They had worried that political and business interests, including the petrochemical industry concentrated along the Texas Gulf Coast, were trying to leverage Harvey’s damage to accelerate planning and development of the Ike Dike, while trying to curtail or even bypass rigorous mandatory environmental reviews. As Scott Jones, spokesman for the Galveston Bay Foundation, put it, “we’ve been concerned…there have been calls to bypass environmental reviews…we certainly think that causes problems for us.”

“We just want all the facts to come out so when we actually do a cost-benefit analysis, we’re looking—truly—at all the benefits and all the costs,” Jones said.

The project was first proposed following (and named after) Hurricane Ike, a 2008 storm that hammered the state, including the 40 percent of the nation’s petroleum production capacity located there and caused the release of a half-million gallons of crude oil into its waters. Ever since, the coastal barrier project has been stuck in limbo. With no concrete plans on how to fund it, or what exactly it would look like, the Ike Dike remains essentially a general idea.

In fact, three separate versions of the concept—as well as a fourth option that would rely less on hard structures and more on using wetlands and a strategic retreat from some flood-prone areas, along with localized levee systems—are under preliminary review by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has included all of them in its so-called “mega-study,” which would evaluate the threats to and needs of the entire coast of Texas, a break from the traditional approach of evaluating proposals on a region-by-region basis.

In the time since it was first proposed, however, the idea of a multibillion-dollar hard structure—inspired by a similar project developed in the Netherlands in the aftermath a massive flood in 1953 that killed more than 1,800 people—has won significant support. That includes the endorsements  of key state officials and their representatives—both Democrats and Republicans —in Washington.  Indeed, earlier this year, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, cast the project in terms of national security, arguing in April in a letter to the president that Texas needed a $15 billion federal shot in the arm “to protect this crucial part of the nation’s economy.”

The pleas, however, were met with virtual silence from Washington.

But the concept—or at least aspects of the three versions being considered by the Army Corps of Engineers—gained renewed attention after Hurricane Harvey.

In October, just weeks after the storm, Gov. Abbott requested the $61 billion from the federal government to rebuilt devastated Texas communities, a request that included up to $15 billion for construction of the coastal barrier project. That was on top of $55 billion in aid to communities stricken by Harvey that the federal government had already pledged.

Environmental activists became alarmed.  There were some, like Brandt Mannchen, of the Houston Chapter of the Sierra Club, who objected to the idea that taxpayers would pay to protect the oil and gas industry’s investments from rising sea levels and worsening storms. That’s because a preponderance of scientists agree that fossil fuel burning has driven the climate change producing those results. But the bulk of the opposition stemmed from what environmentalists feared was a rush to judgment.

There were grave concerns that in their haste to endorse some version of the plan, officials were ignoring potential impacts on wildlife, including on nesting sea turtles and migrating birds. Other concerns surrounded how it might impact salinity levels in Galveston Bay and potentially imperil lucrative sport and commercial fishing. There was also the worry that flood gates at key points along the wall would pinch the waterways, increasing water velocity in those areas and presenting an almost insurmountable obstacle to fish trying to move into Galveston Bay.

“The biggest concern is the movement of larval fish, shrimp and crabs as they try to make their way back into the bay on our high spring tides,” Jones said. “We’re also worried about the movement of adult fish, shrimp and crabs on their way out., and there haven’t really been any studies of the impacts on their movement and their survivability.”

And then there were concerns about whether, in the face of rising sea levels and worsening storms, the proposed barrier would be enough. “We’re telling people, if you just build the Ike Dike, you’re going to be alright,” Mannchen said. “My big concern is that we’re over-promising.”

The environmental community around the Texas Gulf Coast is not intractably opposed to protecting homes and industry from the economic and environmental consequences of the next big storm, said Jones.  Local environmentalists recognize the vulnerability of the petrochemical plants, the largest concentration in the nation, that dot the Gulf Coast of Texas. They acknowledge that a massive dead-on strike by a hurricane and the accompanying tidal surge could have a widespread devastating impact, not just economically, but environmentally as well.  “We don’t disagree that if our area suffered a strike and the plants went down, that’s a national security issue and an environmental issue. We’re worried about the release of petroleum products,” Jones said.  

It is possible that a seawall like the Ike Dike “could do some good,” he said, but a rush to build it may end up causing more harm than it solves. “You may prevent the bay from being ruined by a release of petrochemicals, but you may ruin it by changing the hydrology,” Jones says.

As Shane Bonnot of the Texas chapter of Coastal Conservation Association put it,  “I think if you speak to any environmental, conservation group…there is a consensus among us that let’s follow the process that we have established, that we know works.  Let’s follow the process, and then let’s see which solution…achieves the goals we want to achieve, with protection of our livelihoods and our industry, but also has very minimal environmental and ecological impact.”

For the moment, thanks to the unexpected intervention of the Trump administration, the go-slow approach seems to be gaining traction. At least until the next big storm.