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CHAPTER 1O

aG,

The PetroPatch

HEN HUMANS DEIART, among the immediate beneficiaries


our absence will be mosquitoes. Although our anthropocentl
worldview may flamer us into thinking that human blood is essential
their survival, in fact they are versatilegourmets capableof supping at t
veins of most warm-blooded mammals, cold-blooded reptiles,and ev
birds. In our absence,presumablyplenty of wild and feral creatures\n
rush to fill our void and set up house in our abandoned spaces.Th,
numbers no longer culled by our lethal traffic, they should muldply wi
such abandon that humanity's total biomass-which the eminent biol
'Wilson
gist E. O. estimateswouldn't filI the Grand Canyon-won't
missedfor long.
At the sametime, any mosquitoesstill bereavedby our passingwill
consoledby mo bequests.First, we'll stop exterminatingthem. Huma
were targeting mosquitoes long before the invention of pesticides,
spreadingoil on the surfacesof ponds, estuaries,and puddleswhere th
breed. This larvicide, which deniesbaby mosquitoesoxygen, is still widt
practiced, as are all other manners of antimosquito chemical warfa
They range from hormones that keep larvae from maturing into adul
to-especially in the malarial tropics-aerial spraying of DDT, bann
only in parts of the world. \With humans gone, billions of the little buzz
that would otherwise have died pr.-",ur.ly will now live, and among t
secondarybeneficiarieswill be many freshwaterfish species,in whose fo
chains mosquito eggs and larvae form big links. Others will be flowe
30 / THE VORLD WITHOUT US

when mosquitoesaren't sucking blood, they sip nectar-the main meal I


all male mosquitoes, although vampirish females drink it as well. Tl
makes them pollinators, so the world without us will bloom anew.
The other gift to mosquitoes will be restoration of their traditior
homelands-in this case,home waters. In the United Statesalone. since
founding in 1776, the part of their prime breedinghabitat, wetlands,tl
they have lost equalstwice the areaof California. Put that much land ba
into swamps, and you get the idea. (Mosquito population gro\Mthwor
have to be adjusted for corresponding increasesin mosquito-eating fir
toads, and frogs-though, with the last two, humans may have given t
insectsyet another break It's unclear how many amphibians will survi
chy-trid, an escapedfungus spreadby the international trade in laboratc
frogs. tiggered by rising temperatures, it has annihilated hundreds
speciesworldwide.)
Habitat or not, as anyone knows who lives atop a former marsh tl
was drained and developed, be it in suburban Connecticut or a Nairc
slum, mosquitoes always find a way. Even a dew-filled plastic bottle c
can incubate a few of their eggs.Until asphalt and pavement decompc
for good and wetlands rise up to reclaim their former surface rights, mr
quitoes will make do with puddles and backed-up sewers.And they c
also rest assuredthat one of their favorite man-made nurserieswill be i
tact for, at minimum, another century, and will continue making cam
appearancesfor many more centuries thereafter: scrappedrubber aurom
bile tires.

Rubber is a kind of polymer called an elastomer.The ones that occur


nature, such as the millcy latex extract of the Amazonian Pard tree, a
logically, biodegradable.The tendency of natural latex to turn gooey
high temperatures,and to stiffen or even shatter in cold, limited its prac
caliry until 1839, when a Massachusettshardware salesmantried mixing
with sulfur. -When he accidentally dropped some on a stove and it didr
melt, Charles Goodyear realized that he'd created something that natu
had never tried before.
To this day, nature hasn't come up with a microbe that eatsit, eith,
Goodyear'sprocess,calledvulcanization,ties long rubber polymer chainst
getherwith short strandsof sulfur atoms,actually transforming them intc
THE PETRO PATCH I IJI

single giant molecule. Once rubber is vulcanized-meaning it's heate


spikedwith sulfur, and poured into a mold, such as one shapedlike a tru
tire-the resulting huge moleculetakesthat form and never relinquishesi
Being a single molecule, a tire can't be melted down and turned in
something else.Unless physically shreddedor worn down by 60,000 mil
of friction, both entailing significant enerry, it remains round. Tires dri
landfill operators crazy, becausewhen buried, they encircle a doughnt
shapedair bubble that wants to rise. Most garbagedumps no longer acce
them, but for hundreds of years into the future, old tires will inexorah
work their way to the surfaceof forgotten landfills, fill with rainwater, at
begin breeding mosquitoesagain.
In the United States, an averageof one tire per citizen is discard
annually-that's a third of a billion, just in one year.Then there'sthe rt
of the world. W'ith about 700 million cars currently operating and I
more than that alreadyjunked, the number of usedtires we'll leavebehil
will be less than a trillion, but certainly many, many billions. How lor
they'll lie around dependson how much direct sunlight falls on them. U
til a microbe evolvesthat likes its hydrocarbons seasonedwith sulfur, or
the caustic oxidation of ground-level ozone, the pollutant that stings yo
sinuses,or the cosmic power of ultraviolet rays that Penetratea damag
stratosphericozone layer, can break vulcanized sulfur bonds. Automob
tires therefore are impregnated with [fV inhibitors and "anti-ozonant
along with other additives like the carbon black filler that gives tires th,
strength and color.
\fith all that carbon in tires, they can be also burned, releasingco
siderable enerry, which makes them hard to extinguish, along with st
prising amounts of oily soot that contains some noxious components '
.World
invented in a hurry during \flar iI. After Japan invaded Southe
Asia, it controlled nearly the entire world's rubber supply. Understandi
that their o\Mn war machines wouldn't go far using leather gaskets
wooden wheels,both Germany and the United Statesdrafted their top i
dustriesto find a substiute.
The largestplant in the world today that produces synthetic rubber
in Texas. It belongs to the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and v
built in 1942, not long after scientistsfigured out how to make it. Inste
of living tropical trees, they used dead marine plants: phy"toplankton tl
died 300 million to 350 million yearsago and sank to the seabotto
r12 I THE STORLD w'TTHOUT US

Eventually-so the theory goes; the process is poorly understood :


sometimes challenged-the phytoplankton were covered with so mi
sedimentsand squeezedso hard they metamorphosedinto a viscousliqr
From that crude oil, scientistsalready knew how to refine severaluse
hydrocarbons.Two of these-styrene, the stuff of Styrofoam, and buta
ene, an explosiveand highly carcinogenicliquid hydrocarbon-provi<
the combination to synthesizerubber.
Six decadeslater, it's what Goodyear Rubber still makeshere,with
sameequipment rolling out the basefor everything from NASCAR rac
tires to chewing gum. Large as the plant is, however,it's swampedby w
surroundsit: one of the most monumental consrructsthat human bei
have imposed on the planet's surface.The industrial megaplexthat beg
on the eastside of Houston and continuesuninterrupted to the Gulf
Mexico, 50 miles away, is the largest concentration of petroleum refin
ies, petrochemical companies,and storagestructures on Earth.
It contains, for example,the tank farm behind razor-edgedconcerr
wire just across the highway from Goodyear-a cluster of cylindri
crude-oil receptacleseacha football field's length in diameter, so wide tl
appearsquat.The omnipresentpipelinesthat link them run to all comp
points, as well as up and down-white, blue, yellow, and green pipelir
the big ones nearly four feet across.At plants like Goodyear, pipelir
form archwayshigh enough for trucks to passunder.
Those arejust the visiblepipes.A satellite-mountedCT scannerflyr
over Houston would reveala vast, tangled, carbon-steelcirculatory syst
about three feei below the surface.As in every city and town in the der
oped world, thin capillariesrun down the center of every streer,branch
off to every house.These are gaslines, comprising so much steelthat it
wonder that compassneedlesdon't simply point toward the ground.
Houston, however, gas lines are mere accents,little flourishes. Refin,
pipelines wrap around the city as tightly as a woyen basket. They m<
material called light fractions, distilled or catalltically cracked off crt
oil, to hundreds of Houston chemical plants-such as Texas Petroche
cal, which provides its neighbor Goodyear with butadiene and also c<
cocts a related substancethat makes plastic wrap cling. It also produ
butane-the feedstockfor polyethylene and polypropylene nurdle pelle
Hundreds of other pipes full of freshly refined gasoline,home heat
oil, diesel, and jet fuel hook into the grand patriarch of conduits-r
THE PETRO PATCH I 13J

5,519-m11e,30-inchColonial Pipeline, whose main trunk starts in tl


Houston suburb of Pasadena. It picks up more product in Louisiana,Mi
sissippi,and Alabama, then climbs the easternseaboard,sometimesabov
ground, sometimesbelow. The Colonial is rypically filled with a lineup c
various gradesof fuel that pump through it at about four miles per hor
until they're disgorgedat a Linden, New Jersey,terminal just below Ne
York Harbol-a$su1 a 20-day trip, barring shutdowns or hurricanes.
Imagine future archaeologistsclanging their way through all thor
pipes. rVhat will they make of the thick old steel boilers and multip
stacksbehind TexasPetrochemical?(Although, if humans stick around fi
a few more years, all that old stock, overbuilt back when there were r
computers to pinpoint tolerances,will have been dismantled and sold r
China, which is buying up scrap iron in America for purposesthat son
\World'WarII historiansquestionwith alarm.)
If those archaeologistswere to follow the pipes severalhundred fe
down, they would encounter an artifact destined to be among the longes
lasting ever made by humans. Beneath the Texas Gulf coastare about 5C
salt domes formed when buoyant salts from saline beds five miles don
rise through sedimentary layers. Severallie right under Houston. Bulle
shaped,they can be more than a mile across.By drilling into a salt don
and then pumping in water, it is possibleto dissolveits interior and use
for storage.
Some salt dome storagecayernsbelow the city are 600 feet acrossar
more than half a mile tall, equaling a volume twice that of the Houstc
Astrodome. Becausesalt crystal walls are consideredimpermeable,they a
used for storing gases,including some of the most explosive,such as etl
ylene. Piped directly to an underground salt dome formation, ethylene
stored under 1,500 pounds of pressureundl it's ready to be turned inr
plastic. Becauseit is so volatile, ethylene can decomposerapidly and blo
a pipe right out of the ground. Presumably,it would be best for archae
ogists of the future to leavethe salt cavernsbe, lest an ancient relic from
long-dead civilization blow up in their faces.But how would they knowi

Back aboveground, like robotic versionsof the mosquesand minarets th


gracethe shoresof Istanbul'sBosphorus,Houston's petroscapeof dom<
white tanks and silver fractionating towers spreadsalong the banks of i
'rIlE \7ORLD WTTHOUT uS
34 I

Ship Channel. The flat tanks that store liquid fuels at atmospheric te
peraturesare grounded so that vaporsthat gather in the spacebelow,
roof don't ignite during a lightning storm. In a world without humans
inspect and paint doubled-hulled tanks, and replace them after their j
year life span, it would be a race to seewhether their bottoms corrode fir
spilling their contents into the soil, or rheir grounding connectors flr
away-in which case, explosions would hasten deterioration of the
maining metal fragments.
Some tanks with moveable roofs that foat atop liquid contents
avoid vapor buildup might fail even earlier, as their flexible sealsstart
leak. If so, what's inside would just evaporate,pumping the last remaini
human-extractedcarbon into the atmosphere.Compressedgases,and so
highly infammable chemicalssuch as phenols, are held in sphericaltan
which should last longer becausetheir hulls aren't in conracr with r
ground-although, since they're pressurized, they would explode mr
sensationallyonce their spark prorection rusrs away.
tVhat lies beneath all this hardware, and what are rhe chances
thar
could ever recoverfrom the metallic and chemical shock that the last cr
tury of petrochemical development has wreaked here?Should this m,
unnatural of all Earthly landscapeseverbe abandonedby the humans w
keep its flares burning and fuels flowing, how could nature possibly d
mantle, let alone decontaminate,the great Texaspetroleum patch?

'1Gr

HousroN, ALL 6zo squaremiles of it, straddlesthe edgeberwee


bluestem and grama-grassprairie that once grew belly-high to a horse a
the lower piney-woods wetland that was (and still is) part of the origir
delta of the BrazosRiver. The dirt-red Brazosbegins far acrossthe sta
draining New Mexico mountains 1,000 miles away, then cuts throu
Texas hill country and eventually dumps one of the biggest silt loads
the continent into the Gulf of Mexico. During glacial rimes, when wir
blowing off the ice sheetslammed into warm gulf air and causedrorrent
rains, the Brazoslaid down so much sediment that it would dam itself a
as a result slip back and forth acrossa deltaic fan hundreds of miles wi<
Lately, it passesjust south of town. Houston sits along one of the rive
former channels,atop 40,000 feet of sedimentaryclay deposits.
THE PETRO PATCH I 11'

In the 1830s, that magnolia-lined channel, Buffalo Bayou, attracte


entrepreneurswho noticed that it was navigablefrom Galveston Bay to th
edge of the prairie. At first, the new town they built there shipped cottor
50 miles down this inland waterway to the port of Galvestoir, then th
biggestcity in Texas.After 1900, when the deadliesthurricanein U.S. his
tory hit Galvestonand killed 8,000 people, Buffalo Bayou was widene
and deepenedinto the Ship Channel, to make Houston a seaport.Todai
by cargo volume, it's America's biggest,and Houston itself is huge enoug
to hold Cleveland,Baltimore, Boston, Pittsburgh, Denver, and \Tashing
ton, D.C., with room to spare.

Galveston'smisfortune coincided with discoveriesof oil along the Texa


Gulf coast and the advent of the automobile. Longleaf piney woodr
bottomland delta hardwood forests, and coastalprairie soon were sup
planted by drilling rigs and dozens of refineriesalong Houston's ship
ping corridor. Next came chemical plants, then \7orld'W'ar II rubbe
factories,and, finally, the fabulous posrwarplasticsindustry. Even whe
Texas oil production peaked in the I970s and then plummeted, Hous
ton's infrastructure was so vast that the world's crude kept fiowing her
to be refined.
The tankers, bearing flags of Middle Eastern nations, Mexico, an
Venezuela,arrive at an appendageof the Ship Channel on Galveston Ba
called Texas Ciry a town of about 50,000 that has as much acreaged<
voted to refining as to residencesand business.Compared to their bi
neighbors-sterling Chemical, Marathon, Valero, BP, ISP, Dow-th
bungalows of Texas City's residents,mosdy black and Latino, are lost in
townscaperuled by the geometry of petrochemistry: circles, spheres,an
cylinders-some tall and thin, someshort and flat, somewide and round
It is the tall onesthat tend to blow up.
Not all of them, although they often look alike. Some are wet-g:
scrubbers:to\Mersthat use BrazosRiver water to quench gasemissionsan
cool down hot solids, generatingwhite steam clouds up their stacks.Otl
ers afe fractionating towers, in which crude oil is heated from the bottot
to distill it. The various hydrocarbons in crude, ranging from tar to gas
line to natural gas, have different boiling points; as they're heated, the
separare,arranging themselvesin the column with the lightest oneson tol
rj6 I "tHE \roRLD \rrTHouT us

As long as expanding gasesare drawn off to releasepressure,or the he:


eventually reduced, it's a fairly safeprocess.
Trickier are the ones that add other chemicals to convert petrole
into something new. In refineries,catalytic cracking towers heat the he
hydrocarbonswith a powderedaluminum silicatecaraly$ to about 1,20(
This literally cracks their big polymer chains into smaller, lighter or
such as propane or gasoline.Injecting hydrogen into the processcan I
duce jet fuel and diesel.AII these,especiallyat high remperarures,and
pecially with hydrogen involved, are highly explosive.
A related procedure, isomerization,usesa platinum catalyst and e
more heat to rearrangeatoms in hydrocarbon moleculesfor boosting 1
octane or making substancesused in plastics. Isomerization can ger
tremely volatile. Connected to these cracking ro\Mersand isomeriza
plants areffares.If any processbecomesimbalancedor if temperaruressh
too high, fares are there to bleedoff pressure.A releasevalve sendswhatr
can't be contained up the fare stack, signaling a pilot to ignite. Someti
steamis injected so that whateverit is doesn't smoke,but burns cleanly.
\flhen something malfunctions, rhe resuks, unforrunarely, can
spectacular.In 1998, Sterling Chemical expelleda cloud of various b
zene isomersand hydrochloric acid that hospitalized hundreds. That
lowed a leak of 3,000 pounds of ammonia four yearsearlier rhat promp
9,000 personalinjury suits. In March 2005, a geyserof liquid hydro<
bons erupted from one of BP's isomerization stacks.\When it hit the air
ignited and killed 15 people. That July, at the sameplant, a hydrogen p
exploded; in August, a gasleak reeking of rotten eggs,which signals tc
hydrogen sulfide, shut much of BP down for a while. Days later, at a
plastics-manufacturing subsidiary 15 miles sourh ar Chocolate Bay
fames exploded 50 feet in the air. The blaze had to be left to burn itr
out. It took three days.

The oldest refinery in Texas Ciry started in 1908 by a Virgini. fr.-,


cooperative to produce fuel for their tractors, is owned today by Val
Energy Corporation. In its modern incarnation, it has earned one of
highest safety designationsamong U.S. refineries,but it is still a place ,
signed to draw energyfrom a crude natural resourceby transmuting it ir
more explosive forms. That energy feels barely contained by Valer
THE PETRO PATCH I 137

humming labyrinth of valves,gauges,heat exchangers,pumps, absorbe


separators,furnaces,incinerators,fanges, tanla girdled by spiral stairwell
and serpentineloops of red, yellow, green,and silvery pipes (the silver onr
are insulation-wrapped,meaning that something inside is hot, and needst
stay that way). Looming overheadare20 fracdonation rowersand 20 mor
exhauststacks.A coker shovel,basicallya cranewith a bucket on it, shutde
back and forth, dumping loads of sludge redolent of asphalt-the heav
ends of the crude spectrum, left in the bottom of the fractionators-onri
conveyors leading into a catalytic cracker, to squeezeanother barrel o
dieselfrom them.
Above all this are the flares, wedges of flame against a whitish sk1
keeping all the organic chemistry in equilibrium by burning off pressure
that build faster than all the monitoring gaugescan regulate them. Ther
are gaugesthat read the thickness of steel pipe at the right-angle bend
where hot, corrosivefluids smash,to predict when they will fail. Anychinl
that contains hot liquid traveling at high speedscan develop srresscracks
especiallywhen the liquid is heavy crude, laden with metals and sulfu
that can eat pipe walls.
All this equipment is controlled by computers-undl something ex
ceedswhat the computer can correct. Then the flares kick in. Suppose
though, that a system'spressuresexceededtheir capaciry-or supposeno
body were around to norice the overload. Normally, somebody always is
around the clock. But what if human beings suddenly disappearedwhil
the plant was still operating?
"You'd end up with a break in some vessel,"saysValero spokesma
Fred Newhouse,a compact, congenial man with light brown skin and griz
zled hair. "And probably a fire." Bur at that point, Newhouseadds,fail-saf
control valvesup and downstream from the accident would automaticall;
trip. "\7e measurepressure,flow, and temperatureconstantly.Any change
would isolate the problem so rhat fire couldn't ripple from that unit to th<
next one."
But what if no one were left to fight the flames?And what if all ihr
power died, becauseno one was manning any of the coal, gas,and nuclea
plants, ot any of the hydroelectric dams from California to Tennessee,al
of which funnel elecffonsthrough a Houston grid connecion to keep thr
lights on in Texas City? And what if the auromatic emergencygeneraror
ran out of diesel,so no signal tripped the shutoff valves?
r38 / THE !ooRLD wrrHouT us

Newhousemovesinto the shadowof a cracking tower to consider tl


Nter 26 yearsat Exxon, he really likes working for Valero. He's proud
their clean record, especiallycompared to the BP plant acrossthe ro
which the EPA in2006 named the nation's worst polluter. The thoughr
all this incredible infrastructure out of control, torching itself, makes h
wince.
"Okay. Everything would burn until all the hydrocarbon in the s
tem was gone. But," he insists, "it's very unlikely that fire would spread
yond the property. The pipes that connect the Texas City refineries
have checkvalvesto isolateone from another. So evenwhen you seepla
explode," he says,gesturing acrossthe road, "adjacent units aren't da
aged.Even if it's a huge fire, fail-safesystemsare in place."

E.C. isn't so sure. "Even on a normal operating day," he says,"a pet


chemical plant is a ticking time bomb." A chemical plant and refinery
spector, he's seen volatile light petroleum fractions do some interest
things on their way to becoming secondarypetrochemicals.\Mhen lig
end chemicals such as ethylene or acrylonitrile-a highly inflamma
precursor of acrylic, hazardous to human nervous s/sterns-are unr
high pressure,they often slip through ducts and find their way to adjac
units, or even adjacentrefineries.
In the event that humans were gone tomorro% he says,what wor
happen to petroleum refineries and chemical plants would depend
whether anybody bothered to flip some switchesbefore departing.
"Supposing there'stime for a normal shutdown. High pressureswol
be brought down to low pressure.Boilers would be shut down, so temp
ature isn't a problem. In the towers,the heary bottoms would cake up ir
solid goop. They would be encasedin vesselswith steel inner layers, s
rounded by Scyrofoamor glass-fiberinsulation, with an outer skin of sh
metal. Between those layersthere'soften steel or copper tubing filled w
water to control temperatures.So whatever is in them would be stable
until corrosion set in from the soft water."
He rummages in a desk drawer, then closesit. "Absent any fire or
plosion, light-end gaseswill dissipate into the air. Any sulfur by-prod,
lying around will eventually dissolveand createacid rain. Ever seea Me
can refinery?There're mountains of sulfur. Americansship it off. Anyh<
THE PETRO PATCH I 139

refineriesalso have big tanks of hydrogen. Very volatile, but if they leaked
the hydrogen would float away.Unless lightning blew it up first."
He laceshis fingers behind his curly, grayingbrown hair and tilts back
in his office chair. "Now that would get rid of lot of cement infrastructure
right there."
And if there were no time to shut down a plant, if humans were rap'
tured off to heavenor another galry and left everything running?
He rocks forward. "At first, emergencypower plants would kick in
They're usually diesel. They would probably maintain stability until thel
depleted their fuel. Then you'd have high pressuresand high temPera
'With
tures. no one to monitor controls or the computers, some reaction
would run away and go boom. You would get a fire, and then a dominc
effect, since there'd be nothing to stop it. Even with emergencymotors
water sprayerswouldn't work, becausethere'd be no one to turn them on
Some relief valveswould vent, but in a fire, a relief valve would iust feec
the flames."
E.C. swivels completely in his chair. A marathoner, he wearsjogging
T-shirt. "All the pipes would be conduits for fires
shorts and a sleeveless
You'd have gas going from one areato another. Normally, in emergencie
you shut down the connections, but none of that would happen. Thingr
would just spreadfrom one faciliry to the next. That blaze could possib\
go for weeks,ejecting stuff into the atmosphere."
Another swivel, this time counterclockwise."If this happenedto ever
plant in world, imagine the amount of pollutants. Think of the Iraqi fires
Then multiply that, everywhere."
In those Iraqi fires, Saddam Hussein blew up hundreds of wellheads
but sabotageisn't always needed. Mere static electricity from fluids mov
ing through pipes can spark ignition in natural-gas wells, or in oil wellr
pressurizedwith nitrogen to bubble up more Petroleum.On the big fla
scr€en in front of E.C., a blinking item on a list says that a Chocolatt
Bayou, Texas,plant that makes acrylonitrile was 2002's biggest releaserol
carcinogensin the United States.
"Look: if all the people left, a fire in a gaswell would go until the ga
pocket depleted. Usually, the ignition sources are wiring, or a pump
They'd be dead, but you'd still have static electricity or lightning. A wel
fire burns on the surface,since it needsair, but there would be no one t<
push it back and cap the wellhead. Huge pockets of gas in the Gulf ol
-t}IE
.4O | \0',ORLD WiTHOUT US

Mexico or Kuwait would maybe burn forever. A petrochemical p


wouldn't go that long, becausethere'snot asmuch to burn. But imagi
runaway reaction with burning plants throwing up clouds of stuff like
drogen cyanide. There would be a massivepoisoning of the air in
Texas-Louisianachemical alley. Follow the trade winds and seewhat I
pens."
All those particulates in the atmosphere,he imagines, could crea
mini chemical nuclear winter. "They would also releasechlorinated c
pounds like dioxins and furans from burning plastics.And you'd get I
chromium, and mercury attachedto the soot. Europe and North Amer
with the biggestconcentrationsof refineriesand chemical plants, woul,
the most contaminated. But the clouds would dispersethrough the wc
The next generation of plants and animals, the onesthat didn't die, m
need to mutate in ways that could impact evolution."

.cF

ON run NoRTHERN edgeof TexasCiry in the long afternoonsha


of an ISP chemical plant, is a 2,000-acre wedge of original tall grass
nated by Exxon-Mobil and now managed by The Nature Conservanc
is the last remnant of what were 6 million acresof coasml prairie be
petroleum arrived. Today, the Texas Ciry Prairie Preserveis home to l
of the 40 known remaining Attwater's prairie chickens-considered
most endangeredbird in North America until the conrroversial2005 s
ting in Arkansas of a lone ivory-billed woodpecker, a specieshitherto
lieved extinct.
During courtship, male Attwater's prairie chickens inflate vi
balloon-like golden sacson either side of their necks. The impressed
males respond by laying a lot of eggs.In a world without humans, h
ever, it's questionable whether the breed will be able to survive.
industry apparatusisn't all that has spreadacrosstheir habitat. The gr
land here once ran clear to Louisiana with hardly a tree, the tallest thinS
the horizon being an occasional grazing buffalo. That changed aro
1900 with the coincidental arrival of both petroleum and the Chinese
low tree.
Back in China, this formerly cold-weatherspeciescoated its seedsr
harvestablequantities of wax to guard againstwinter. Once it was bror
THE PETRO PATCH I I4I

to the balmy American South as an agricultural crop, it noticed there wa


no need to do that. In a textbook display of sudden evolutionary adapta
tion, it stopped making weatherproof wax and put its energy into produc.
ing more seeds.
Today, wherever there isn't a petrochemical stack along the Shig
Channel, there's a Chinese tallow ffee. Houston's longleaf pines are lonl
gone, overwhelmed by the Chinese interloper, its rhomboid leavesturninl
ruby red eachfall in atavistic memory of chilly Canton. The only way Tht
Nature Conservanry keeps them from shading out and shoving aside thr
bluestem and sunflowers of its prairie is with careful annual burning tc
'$Tithout
keep the prairie chicken mating fields intact. people to maintair
that ardficial wilderness,only an occasionalexploding old petroleum tanl
might beat back the botanical Asian invasion.

Il in the immediate aftermath of Horno sdpiens?etrolerus,the tanks anc


towers of the Texas petrochemical patch all detonated together in on<
spectacularroar, after the oily smoke cleared,there would remain meltec
roads, twisted pipe, crumpled sheathing, and crumbled concrete.\(hite.
hot incandescencewould have jump-started the corrosion of scrap metalr
in the salt air, and the polymer chains in hydrocarbon residueswoulc
likewise have cracked into smaller, more digestible lengths, hastenin6
biodegradation. Despite the expelled toxins, the soils would also be en
riched with burnt carbon, and after a year of rains switchgrasswould br
growing. A few hardy wildfowers would appear.Gradually, life would re
sume,
Or, if the faith of Valero Energy's Fred Newhouse in system safe
guards proves warranted-or if the departing oilmen's last loyal act is t(
depressurizetowers and bank the fires-the disappearanceof Texas'
world champion petroleum infrastructure will proceed more slowly. Dur.
ing the first few years,the paint that slowscorrosion will go. Over the nex
trn'o decades,all the storagetanks will exceedtheir life spans. Soil mois.
ture, rain, salt, and Texas wind will loosen their grip until they leak. Any
heary crude will have hardened by then; weather will crack it, and bugr
will eventually eat it.
\(hat liquid fuels that haven't already evaporatedwill soak into tht
ground. V/hen they hit the water table, they'll float on top becauseoil ir
't]lE
t42 | \vORLD WITHOUT US

lighter than water. Microbes will find them, realize that they were <
only plant life, too, and gradually adapt to eat them. fumadillos will re
to burrow in the cleansedsoil, among the rotting remains of buried pi1
Unattended oil drums, pumps, pipes, towers,valves,and bolts will
teriorate at the weakest points, their joints. "Flanges, rivets," says I
Newhouse. "There are a jillion in a re6nery." lJntil they go, collapsing
metal walls, pigeons that already love to nest atop refinery towers
speed the corruption of carbon steel with their guano, and rattlesn
will nest in the vacant structures below. As beaversdam the str€ams
trickle into Galveston Bay, some areaswill flood. Houston is generally
warm for a freeze-thawcycle, but its deltaic clay soils undergo formid
swell-shrink bouts as rains come and go.'!V-ith no more foundation ref
men to shore up the cracks,in lessthan a century downtown buildings
staft leaning.
During that sametime, the Ship Channel will have silted back int,
former Buffalo Bayou self. Over the next millennium, it and the other
Brazos channels will periodically fill, flood, undermine the shopl
malls, car dealerships,and entrance ramps-and, building by tall bu
ing, bring down Houston's skyline.
As for the Brazos itself: Today, 20 miles down the coast from Tr
Ciry just below Galveston Island and just past the venomous plumes
ing from Chocolate Bayou, the Brazos de Dios ("Arms of God") R
wanders around a pair of marshy national wildlife refuges, drops ar
land'sworth of silt, and joins the Gulf of Mexico. For thousandsof ye
it has shared a delta, and sometimesa mouth, with the Colorado and
San Bernard rivers. Their channelshave interbraided so often that the
rect answerto which is which is temporary at best.
Much of the surrounding land, barely three feet above sea leve
dense canebrake and old bottomland forest stands of live oaks, as
elms, and native pecans,sparedyearsago by sugarcaneplantations for
tle shade."Old" here meansonly a century or two, becauseclay soils r,
root penetration, so that mature trees tend to list until the next hurric
knocks them over. Hung with wild grapevines and beards of Spa
moss, these woods are seldom visited by humans, who are dissuade
poison iry and black snakes,and also by golden orb weayerspidersbig
human hand, which string viscouswebs the size of small trampolines
tween tree trunks. There are enough mosquitoes to belie any notion r
THE PETRO PATCH I '43

their survival would be threatened when evolving microbes finally brinl


down the world's mountain rangesof scraptires.
As a result, these neglected woods are inviting habitats for cuckoos
woodpeckers,and wading birds such as ibises,sandhill cranes,and roseat
spoonbills. Cottontail and marsh rabbits attract barn owls and bald eagle
and each spring thousands of returning passerinebirds, including scarle
and summer tanagersin fabulous breeding plumage, flop into these tree
after a long gulf crossing.
The deep claysbelow their perchesaccumulatedback when the Brazo
fooded-back before a dozen dams and diversionsand a pair of canalssi
phoned its water to Galveston and Texas Ciry. But it will flood again. Un
tended dams silt up fast. \Tithin a century without humans, the Brazo
will spill over all of them, one by one.
It may not even have to wait that long. Not only is the Gulf of Mex
ico, whose water is even warmer than the ocean's,creeping inland, but al
along the Texascoast for the past century, the ground has been lowered tc
receiveit. \7hen oil, gas,or groundwater is pumped from beneath the sur
face, land settlesinto the spaceit occupied. Subsidencehas lowered partr
of Galveston 10 feet. An upscalesubdivision in Baytown, north of Texa
Ciry dropped so low that it drowned during Hurricane Alicia in 1983 anc
is now a wetlands nature preserve.Little of the Gulf Coast is more thar
three feet above sealevel, and parts of Houston actually dip below it.
Lower the land, raise the seas,add hurricanes far stronger than mid.
size, Category 3 Nicia, and even before its dams go, the Brazosgets to d<
againwhat it did for 80,000 years:like its sisterto the east,the Mississipp
it will food its entire delta, starting up where the prairie ends. Flood tht
enormous ciry that oil built, all the way down to the coast. Swallow tht
San Bernard and overlap the Colorado, fanning a sheet of water acros
hundreds of miles of coastline.GalvestonIsland's !7-foot seawallwon'
be much help. Petroleum tanks along the Ship Channel will be sub
merged; flare towers, catalytic crackers, and fractionating columns, likt
downtown Houston buildings, will poke out of brackish foodwaters, thei.
foundations rotting while they wait for the waters to recede.
Having rearranged things yet again, the Brazos will choose a nev
courseto the sea-a shorter one, becausethe seawill be nearer. New bot
tomlands will form, higher up, and eventually new hardwoods will appea
(assumingthat Chinese tallow trees,whose waterproof seedsshould makr
.44 | 'r}lB \roRLD \TTTHOUT US

them permanent colonizers, share the riparian spacewith them). Tt


Ciry will be missing; hydrocarbons leaching out of its drowned pe
chemical plants will swirl and dissipatein the currents, with a few he:
end crude residues dumped as oil globules on the new inland sho
eventually to be eaten.
Below the surface,the oxidizing metal parts of chemical alleywill p
vide a place for Galveston oysters to attach. Silt and oyster shells
.$Vlthin
slowly bury them, and will then be buried themselves. a few r
lion years, enough layers will amass to compress shells into limestt
which will bear an odd, intermittent rusty streak fecked with spark
tracesof nickel, molybdenum, niobium, and chromium. Millions of y,
after that, someoneor something might have the knowledge and tool
recognize the signal of stainlesssteel. Nothing, however, will remair
suggestthat its original form once stood tall over a place called Texas,
breathed fire into the sb'.