Talk about keeping an eye on the weather: Shell Oil Co. is teaming up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to gather real-time information about storms that blow through the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

"That's unprecedented," said John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil, the Houston-based arm of Royal Dutch Shell. "It's not just evacuation and shutdown that's important. It's knowing the trajectory of the storm and where it's headed. The more information we know from offshore, the more we can prepare for onshore consequences. And over the longer term, it can help us better design platforms and onshore facilities by having more knowledge about how nature works."

The project came together when Hofmeister and NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher Jr. attended a conference in Corpus Christi, TX, two years ago. The conference focused on Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and the other storms that blasted through the GOM in 2005, and the two men agreed to work together to see if more information could be gathered about offshore storms.

NOAA already has offshore equipment with sensors in the GOM that provide information, but the sensors do not cover as much area as they would on a platform.

One of the installations to be fitted with the NOAA sensors will be Shell's Mars platform, located 130 miles southeast of New Orleans, which was nearly toppled by Hurricane Katrina. Shell's Brutus platform, about 165 miles southwest of New Orleans, also will be fitted with a sensor, as will Auger, 214 miles southwest of New Orleans, and Ram Powell, 125 miles southeast of the city. Three other sensors will be placed on platforms close to the Texas and Louisiana coasts.

"NOAA is in the hurricane business, and Shell is in the hurricane experience business," Hofmeister said. "Let's not just depend on fortune. Let's see if we can use real information in real time to help us over the longer term."

The equipment to be installed surpasses federal regulations that require deepwater platform operators to gather and transmit observations of ocean current profiles to NOAA's National Data Buoy Center. The sensors will be designed to gather meteorological and oceanographic information to help with hurricane research, forecasting and management of coastal resources from shrimping businesses to beaches, Lautenbacher said. Among the information to be gathered will be wave height and direction, strength of currents and the level of heat in the water. Heat determines how much energy may be drawn into a developing storm. The sensors would continue to provide real-time information even after platforms are shut in.

"Even when the platforms are evacuated, we're going to be able to get continuous information through our satellite channel on oceanographic and atmospheric conditions," Lautenbacher said.

Shell plans to begin installing the devices this spring, with completion expected in late 2009. NOAA will manage the data and share the information with the National Weather Service, its National Hurricane Center and the public. Other operators in the GOM also will have access to the data. NOAA would provide the technical expertise for the project and be responsible for the inspections. Altogether, the project is expected to cost $1 million to build and install the devices.

Other producers could take part in the project in the future, Lautenbacher said. "It's a model for future types of agreements that allow us to get data from platforms that are not ours."

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