Quake Lessons From Japan: Pay Attention To Energy Resiliency

Mar 5, 2012

BELLINGHAM -- Sunday marks the one year anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The tsunami destruction and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown garner the most attention. There was another cause of suffering in Japan's quake zone. In some places, you couldn't get gasoline for weeks to fuel cars and generators. The Pacific Northwest is prone to the same kind of earthquake. Correspondent Tom Banse reports emergency planners say this region's fuel supply lines are vulnerable.

Tokyo University earthquake researcher Kenji Satake explored the Japanese quake zone last year. He went in after the initial emergency response wound down. A year later, at a conference in Vancouver, BC, he remembers long waits back then to refill his car's gas tank.

Satake: "We needed to wait at least a half hour, sometimes more than an hour to get gas. There was a long line for the gas station."

After the earthquake, two oil refineries caught fire and burned for days. In places, fuel shortages hindered the emergency response. At Oregon's Emergency Management Office, Althea Rizzo expects we'll be in similar shape after the Big One hits. Or even worse off.

Rizzo: "From the refinery to the gas tank there's all sorts of points along that way that are going to be prone to failure. The gasoline that you have in your car is probably going to be the gasoline you'll have for the next two to three months."

That's a worst-case scenario. Rizzo says the resilience of energy "lifelines" is a keystone to recovery from an earthquake. The majority of that infrastructure lies in private hands. For instance, the oil company BP owns a big refinery north of Bellingham. It also operates a 400-mile distribution system called the Olympic Pipe Line. That supplies much of the gasoline for western Washington and Oregon.

BP's director of external affairs in the Northwest is Bill Kidd. He feels pretty confident the region's oil refineries will "survive" a major earthquake. Others are more skeptical about that. As far as the pipeline goes, Kidd says it would shut down automatically in a megaquake. And he says it would take "awhile" to come back up.

Kidd: "I don't want to be Polyanna-ish about it, but neither do I want to be Doomsday-ish. We have a lot of people who can weld. We have a lot of material here to be able to fix things."

Kidd says speedy restoration of fuel supply depends on other services coming back after a quake. Most on his mind are collapsed bridges and power outages. The gas pipeline and retailers run on electricity.

Kidd: "I am much more concerned about the high voltage power system throughout the Northwest and then obviously the lower voltages that feed down and get to us and runs our pump stations along the line. There's a huge question whether or not we'll have power to run whatever is left, that's our biggest issue."

The state of Washington has an emergency coordinator specifically assigned to energy sector resilience. That's Mark Anderson. Based on past disasters, he says there's one thing to keep in mind about the inevitable shortages of fuel: we won't need as much of it for a while.

Anderson: "For example, the same snowstorm/ice storm that takes out supply of fuel also takes the roads out; people can't drive from place to place."

In Oregon, state agencies are prodding energy suppliers to assess their vulnerability to a magnitude 9 earthquake and use that info to prioritize upgrades. The Oregon Depts. of Geology and Energy are completing their own seismic risk assessment of the electricity, natural gas and liquid fuel sectors. One of the report's authors says, of those three sectors, transportation fuel is in the worst position.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network