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Emily's Projected Route Gradually Shifts North, Threatening Gulf Producers

Just when some producers were getting their hopes up about Hurricane Emily's route, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) changed its projections for landfall to just south of Brownsville, TX, by Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning (July 20). Producers are likely to spend a third week in a row evacuating offshore personnel and possibly shutting in some production in the vicinity of the hurricane.

Shell already said Friday that it had started removing nonessential personnel from its Gulf platforms. It said that none of its production was shut in.

As of Friday morning, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) reported that only 65.04 MMcf/d of gas and 30,379 bbl/d of oil remained shut in from Hurricane Dennis based on reports from four companies. All 819 offshore platforms and 134 rigs were remanned by Thursday. Cumulative shut in production (7/8-7/15) totals 23.246 Bcf of gas and 5.3 million bbl of oil from Hurricane Dennis. And that is on top of the cumulative shut ins from Tropical Storm Cindy that reached 1.683 Bcf of gas and 312,127 bbl of oil on July 7.

However, because there were no damaged production facilities, most supply returned to service rapidly. The only major casualty has been BP and ExxonMobil's $1 billion Thunder Horse oil and natural gas platform in the Mississippi Canyon area of the Gulf. Thunder Horse, which is located 150 miles southeast of New Orleans, is the largest semisubmersible platform in the world, sitting in 6,000 feet of water on top of the largest gas and oil discovery in the Gulf of Mexico. It was scheduled to begin production late this year, but was found listing 20 degrees last Monday after Hurricane Dennis tore through the eastern Gulf.

BP said Friday that workers have made some progress leveling the massive floating structure. By pumping water from its pontoons and columns, workers were able to slightly raise the end of the platform deck that had leaned over into the water. In a joint statement with the U.S. Coast Guard and the MMS on Friday, BP, which operates the platform (ExxonMobil owns a 25% stake) said the platform "has risen and is stable."

Spokesman Ronnie Chappell said Thursday that workers were able to raise one column of the structure about 10 feet and another about five feet. He said several hundred workers were helping right the structure, including teams from the MMS and the Coast Guard.

"Efforts to seal ballast water inlets and plug instrumentation ports continue," the statement said on Friday. "It was not due to start production until the end of 2005 and is not yet connected to the subsea oil wells" so there was no danger of an oil spill.

"The weather is still calm," the company noted Friday. "As a precaution and with the expectation that weather will deteriorate throughout the region as [Hurricane] Emily crosses the Gulf, BP has contracted [Dutch towage firm Smit International] to take the lead in this stage of the recovery. Their role in the integrated BP/Smit team is to make the platform seaworthy and storm-safe on location." BP touted Smit's expertise in vessel incident response and recovery management and said it expected to speed up the process of righting and securing the platform.

Chappell wouldn't say on Thursday whether there was ever a possibility the platform might sink. "The platform is designed to float, and there is a lot of redundancy built into it. We've got these pumping operations underway and we're making progress. That's really all I can say. We've got a plan and we're working it. I'm not going to speculate on how long this process will take."

Since Thunder Horse was found listing on Monday morning, BP has been struggling to come up with a cause. Although Hurricane Dennis probably had something to do with the problem, the platform was designed to withstand hurricane force winds and waves.

"This listing incident certainly coincided with the hurricane, but we have not found something that would tie it to the hurricane," Chappell said. "The platform was designed to withstand the very largest storms that occur in the Gulf of Mexico. I don't know what the design criteria are, but the eye of this hurricane was more than 100 miles away; it did not bear the brunt of the storm. We do not believe that the platform saw anything approaching its design criteria."

The National Data Buoy Center said that wave heights in the vicinity of Thunder Horse on Sunday reached peak levels of about 35 feet.

Although Emily is unlikely to produce waves of that size in the central and eastern Gulf, the seas are still likely to be quite rough offshore Texas and the platform may be more vulnerable to wave damage in its current position. As of 5 p.m. Friday, the center of Emily was 350 miles southeast of Kingston, Jamaica and moving west at 20 mph with maximum sustained winds at 105 mph.

Production from Thunder Horse was scheduled to begin late this year. Thunder Horse has a nameplate capacity for 250,000 bbl/d of oil and 200 MMcf/d of gas. It was expected to reach those production levels over the course of the first 12 months of commercial operation. It is unclear at this point whether the platform will meet its production schedule.

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