Gulf of Mexico Storm Threat Sparks Rig Evacuations

Gulf of Mexico Storm Threat Sparks Evacuations From Energy Rigg
A satellite image of a storm that could develop into tropical storm Debby in next 48 hours. Photograph by NOAA

Gulf of Mexico energy platforms began evacuations and shutdowns as a weather system off the Yucatan Peninsula threatened to turn into a tropical storm over the weekend.

There’s a 90 percent chance the cluster of thunderstorms, drifting northward, will become a tropical depression or Tropical Storm Debby within the next 48 hours, the National Hurricane Center said. Computer forecast models disagree on the system’s track.

“The center of circulation of the broad area of low pressure over the Gulf of Mexico appears to be becoming better defined,” the center said in an advisory before 8 a.m. New York time. “A tropical depression, or more likely a tropical storm, could form later today or tonight if the development trend continues.”

The Gulf of Mexico is home to 6.5 percent of U.S. natural gas production, 29 percent of oil output and 40 percent of refining capacity. Offshore oil and natural gas platforms need to carry out evacuations well in advance of a storm’s arrival, so any system in the Gulf can cause production disruptions.

Ferrying Personnel

BHP Billiton Ltd. shut the Neptune and Shenzi platforms, which can together produce 150,000 barrels of oil a day and 100 million cubic feet of gas. Murphy Oil Corp. began evacuating non-essential workers in the Gulf yesterday, as did Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Marathon Oil Corp., Nexen Inc., Enterprise Products Partners LP and Hess Corp., the companies said in e-mailed statements or on their websites.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc may evacuate some non-essential workers from central and western Gulf rigs in the next few days, the company said on its website.

In addition, ERA Helicopters LLC of St. Charles, Louisiana, reported it’s ferrying personnel from off-shore platforms. Melanie Landry, a spokeswoman for ERA, declined to comment on which companies had called for evacuations.

“Given that the U.S. Gulf now has become a significant exporter of products, it is a bit more difficult to estimate the net impact of U.S. Gulf tropical storms, as delays in export shipments due to bad weather can also translate into product stock builds,” Olivier Jakob, managing director of Switzerland-based energy researcher Petromatrix, said in an e-mailed report.

‘Squashed Spider’

Computer models can’t give a clear indication of where the system may go because there isn’t a storm yet, Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the hurricane center in Miami, said in a telephone interview.

“They’re all over the place,” he said. “The models are going to look like a squashed spider, so I wouldn’t put any stock in it.”

A U.S. Air Force Reserve reconnaissance flight scheduled to investigate the area yesterday was canceled and rescheduled for today, Feltgen said.

The system has potential, however.

“That is definitely a system that has to be paid attention to,” said Tom Kines, an expert senior meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “I think the odds are pretty high that it will be a named storm before the weekend is over.”

A storm gets a name when its winds reach 39 miles (63 kilometers) per hour. Kines said warm water and low wind shear in the Gulf will allow the system to organize and strengthen.

Weather Patterns

The chance of the storm growing into a hurricane before going ashore sometime next week are slim at the moment, said Jim Rouiller, senior energy meteorologist at Planalytics Inc. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. While the waters of the Gulf are warm enough to spark a system, “the heat content doesn’t favor rapid intensification,” he said.

Where the storm will go depends on other weather patterns across the U.S., Rouiller said. In one scenario, a pair of high pressure systems could steer it into the Florida panhandle. Another would take it across the western Gulf of Mexico and into Texas, he said.

Wherever the storm goes, it will probably make landfall sometime in the middle of next week, Kines said.

Rouiller said this is the first real threat of the year in the Gulf of Mexico and with the relatively mild start to summer, “this will get the traders looking and saying, ‘Hey, we got something ominous for the Gulf.’”

If Debby forms, it would be the fourth storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. It will also be the first time since record-keeping began in 1851 that four storms have formed in the Atlantic before July 1, Feltgen said.

“This is the seventh Atlantic season in recorded history where three storms have formed before July 1,” Feltgen said. “We have never gone with four storms before July 1.”

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