With the dress rehearsal of Tropical Storm Erin bringing some Gulf of Mexico evacuations and drenching rains to the Gulf Coast, oil and natural gas producers on Friday were bracing for the real thing to impact early next week as Hurricane Dean continued to strengthen in the eastern Caribbean.

Dean, the first hurricane of the season, had reached Category 3 strength as of Friday afternoon with sustained winds of 125 mph with higher gusts. The storm had rumbled across a number of Caribbean islands, peeling back roofs and causing at least three fatalities. According to the National Hurricane Center, the storm is currently expected to strike the northeast tip of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula on Tuesday before entering the Gulf of Mexico, potentially as a Category 4 storm packing 150 mph winds.

Producers on Friday were making precautionary evacuations and shutting in production with more moves expected to be made through the weekend and into this week. Shell, which was one of the more proactive outfits ahead of Erin, said 75 personnel were evacuated Thursday with another 200 scheduled to be evacuated Friday.

"Production from the North Padre Island 975 field shut in for TS Erin remains shut in (5 MMcf/d of natural gas) pending track of Hurricane Dean," said Sarah Andreani, a spokeswoman for Shell. "Two sub-sea wells that tie back to the Brutus platform have been shut-in (2,000 barrels of oil and 2 MMcf/d of natural gas)." She noted that more evacuations were likely over the weekend.

Like many of the companies working in the Gulf, ExxonMobil and Anadarko said Friday they were closely monitoring the situation but had taken no action as of yet.

"ExxonMobil is determining which of its facilities may potentially be in the path of the storm, preparing those structures for heavy wind and rain, and identifying critical personnel needed for possible shut-ins," the company said. "Currently, there is no impact to production, and no personnel have been evacuated."

BP and Chevron said Friday that they planned on evacuating nonessential personnel from offshore facilities but that normal production operations will continue.

Offshore drilling specialist Transocean said it has evacuated more than 75 nonessential people from four rigs and was in the process of de-manning a few other rigs in the Gulf. "We do have 10 rigs in the Gulf of Mexico that include one under tow, seven deepwater and two midwater floating rigs," said Guy Cantwell, a spokesman for Transocean. "Some of those rigs have thruster/dynamic positioning capability. They are preparing to secure the well, pull the equipment and evacuate some nonessential personnel. As the storm moves closer to the rigs, which are mostly offshore Louisiana, they will outrun the storm by moving around the back of the storm."

The Minerals Management Service said Friday afternoon that personnel have been evacuated from a total of two production platforms, equivalent to 0.2% of the 834 manned platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Personnel from one rig have also been evacuated; this is equivalent to 1% of the 102 rigs currently operating in the Gulf.

"From the operators' reports, it is estimated that approximately 0.17% of the oil production in the Gulf has been shut in, roughly 2,163 barrels of oil per day. Estimated oil production from the Gulf of Mexico as of April 2007 was 1.3 million barrels of oil per day," the MMS said. "It is also estimated that approximately 0.1% of the natural gas production in the Gulf has been shut in, roughly 8 MMcf/d of gas. Estimated natural gas production from the Gulf of Mexico as of April 2007 was 7.7 Bcf/d."

According to AccuWeather.com, Dean could take a track that closely resembles that of devastating Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which killed 319 people and caused roughly $5.5 billion in damage. After tearing through the Lesser Antilles, Gilbert slammed into the Yucatan, leaving 35,000 people homeless and sinking 83 ships. Gilbert then struck the U.S. just south of Brownsville, TX.

Dean was expected to continue to intensify as it moves across the warm waters of the Caribbean. "Interests in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, including Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, should closely monitor the storm over the next several days," the forecasting firm said. The National Hurricane Center reports that by Sunday, Dean should become a major Category 4 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of at least 131 mph as it heads toward the Yucatan Peninsula.

However, as of late Friday afternoon, Dean's course was still open for debate. "A strong Atlantic high-pressure system should keep Dean on a slightly north of due west track through the weekend, which would take the hurricane awfully close to Jamaica Sunday," said Brett Anderson, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com. "Beyond that, the strength and position of that Atlantic high will determine whether or not Dean makes a more right-handed turn right into the Gulf of Mexico or continues west into the Yucatan Peninsula."

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