Barreling across the Gulf of Mexico toward the Texas coast, Hurricane Ike is currently expected to make landfall early Saturday somewhere between Houston and Corpus Christi. That area happens to be home to the nation's greatest concentration of oil refineries and chemical plants, raising the specter of potential environmental and economic disaster. The Associated Press reports:

The oil and gas industry watched the storm closely, fearing damage to the very heart of its operations.

Texas is home to 26 refineries that account for one-fourth of U.S. refining capacity, and most are clustered along the Gulf Coast in such places as Houston, Port Arthur and Corpus Christi. Exxon Mobil Corp.'s plant in Baytown, outside Houston, is the nation's largest refinery. Dow Chemical has a huge operation just north of Corpus Christi.

Refineries are built to withstand high winds, but flooding can disrupt operations and -- as happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Gustav -- power outages can shut down equipment for days or weeks. An extended shutdown could lead to higher gasoline prices.

But paying more at the pump is not the only threat when refineries take a hit from a hurricane, as the residents of Meraux, La. learned after Hurricane Katrina. In that community southeast of New Orleans, the Murphy Oil refinery spilled about a million gallons of oil during the floods, contaminating some 1,700 homes with cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, petrochemicals, and arsenic.