Hurricane Threat to U.S. Gulf Oil and Gas Fades to Almost Zero

The hurricane threat to oil and gas development areas in the Gulf of Mexico is fading and may almost be over for the year, meteorologists said.

With the onset of the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn, weather patterns change, shielding the western Gulf of Mexico from storms forming in the Atlantic. More than 30 percent of U.S. oil and 10 percent of gas production are in the Gulf, most in the area from Mississippi to Texas.

“Essentially, the 2010 hurricane season is over for the Gulf energy production region,” said Jim Rouiller, senior energy meteorologist at commercial forecaster Planalytics Inc. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. While storms may yet emerge, “virtually no threat remains for a damage-producing hurricane to hit the densely populated rig, platform and refinery facilities.”

Sixteen storms with winds of at least 39 miles (63 kilometers) per hour have formed in the Atlantic so far this year, more than the 11 considered average by the National Hurricane Center. None has made a direct strike on U.S. oil and gas fields. The site of the BP Plc oil spill has been spared as well.

“What has been a surprise is that we haven’t had a major hurricane hit the U.S., period,” said Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates LLP in Houston.

Inventories Up

As the hurricane season winds down to its final six weeks, petroleum inventories are above where they were last year, Lipow said. Crude oil is up about 6.7 percent from last year, gasoline is up 4 percent and distillates have risen about 1 percent, he said.

Lipow agrees the Gulf may have dodged this year’s threat. So far, only Tropical Storm Bonnie, which had top winds of 40 mph, has made a direct strike on the U.S. Bonnie rode across southern Florida before dissipating in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricane Alex and Tropical Storm Hermine struck just south of the Texas border in Mexico. Both storms caused major flooding in the two countries.

Those two systems may be as close as any will get to the U.S. oil and gas fields this year.

“As the fall and winter come on, the steering currents just aren’t right for the storms to move out of the Caribbean and go west, they tend to go north or northeast,” said William Gray, the Colorado State University professor who pioneered hurricane seasonal forecasting. “As a result you tend to get late-season storms in Florida and along the East Coast but in the Gulf, generally not.”

Cold Fronts

As the Northern Hemisphere gets deeper into fall, cold fronts begin to move into the Gulf of Mexico and knock any potential hurricanes out of the area, said Thomas Downs, a meteorologist at Weather 2000 Inc. in New York.

“Think of the cold front as a baseball bat and the storm as a ball,” Down said. “They just whack that ball out to sea.”

After the second week of October, the chances of a major hurricane hitting Texas are just about zero, he said.

However, it isn’t impossible for a storm to strike in October, said Jill Hasling, president of the Weather Research Center in Houston. The cold fronts that block storms trying to get into the Gulf from the Atlantic can themselves spawn storms, she said.

1989 Exception

Hurricane Jerry grew out of the Gulf in October 12-16, 1989, and struck Galveston Island as a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson Scale, killing three people and causing about $70 million in damage, according to hurricane center records.

While Florida and the eastern Gulf may still have to contend with a storm rising out of the Caribbean, it is doubtful this year will produce a repeat of 1989, Rouiller said.

“I still feel pretty good about that,” Rouiller said. “There is high pressure and dry air prevailing over a large part of the Gulf and the threat from a damaging Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane is just not there anymore.”

Gray said many storms will develop in the Caribbean at the beginning of a season and at the end. In the middle, from about Aug. 20 to the beginning of October, storms are more likely to grow in the central Atlantic from an area bounded by the Lesser Antilles in the west and Cape Verde in the east, he said.

Those storms tend to be among the most powerful, said Gray from his Fort Collins, Colorado, office. Late-season Caribbean storms usually aren’t as strong.

However, in 2008, Hurricane Paloma, which formed in the Caribbean off the coast of Nicaragua, attained Category 4 strength and was the second-strongest hurricane to form in November on record. Paloma struck Cuba and weakened to a tropical storm before moving through the eastern Gulf of Mexico near Florida.

Hasling said it’s important to remember that the hurricane season doesn’t end until Nov. 30 and the area has to be watched.

“And then we have to start planning for next year because it will be here before we know it,” she said.

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