Weather conditions along the Gulf Coast were gradually improving Thursday as Isaac, which had reached the Louisiana coast as a Category 1 hurricane, weakened and moved into northern Louisiana, but oil and natural gas operators were being cautious about returning to evacuated facilities in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

"Today, offshore personnel remain evacuated from all BP-operated production platforms and drilling rigs, and all of BP's oil and gas production in the Gulf remains temporarily shut in," BP plc said Thursday. "BP facilities in Fourchon and Houma, LA, and in Pascagoula, MS, have also been evacuated and remain closed."

Energy markets on Wednesday and Thursday appeared to be factoring in the effects of a shuttered GOM. After gaining 5.2 cents to $2.685 on Wednesday, the October natural gas futures contract on Thursday tacked on another 6.3 cents to close the day's regular session at $2.748.

BP, which is one of the biggest producers in the GOM, said it would attempt flyover surveys of key facilities in the GOM as weather permitted and then begin redeploying its offshore personnel. Shell said it began flyover inspections of its facilities Thursday morning. "Plans for staff redeployment are underway to potentially begin on Friday as weather conditions permit," Shell said.

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. said Thursday that its remote monitoring capabilities indicated that all of its facilities in the GOM, including the natural gas Independence Hub, were intact. Anadarko expects to begin re-staffing facilities in the central GOM on Friday and start-up activities there "as third-party-operated pipelines and infrastructure permit." The company expects to return personnel to its operated facilities in the eastern GOM, including Independence Hub, beginning Saturday morning, followed by on-site inspections and start-up activities as non operated pipelines and infrastructure permit.

Chevron Corp. said Thursday it had begun deploying personnel to its onshore and offshore facilities to assess the impact of Hurricane Isaac. "We will not comment on any possible impact to operations," a Chevron spokesman said.

Williams, whose Williams Partners LP operates a long list of gas processing and pipeline facilities along the Gulf Coast and in the GOM, said it expected to perform post-storm inspections of its offshore facilities Thursday and Friday. "Personnel have returned to the Mobile Bay gas processing plant and the Geismar olefins production facility and performed post-storm assessments and inspections. Neither facility sustained any significant storm damage," Williams said.

"Mobile Bay plans to resume operations as soon as offshore inspections are complete and producers begin flowing production. Geismar will resume operations following several days of maintenance unrelated to the storm." The company said it expected crews to return to the onshore Larose gas processing plant and the Paradis fractionator Thursday afternoon to begin safety-related post-storm assessments and inspections.

On Thursday the center of Isaac, which had been downgraded to tropical depression status, was slowly weakening about 35 miles west-northwest of Monroe, LA, but was still producing heavy rains, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Maximum sustained winds had fallen to 35 mph, and the storm was expected to move north through Friday. A storm surge of more than five feet was still occurring on the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and a surge of nearly four feet was occurring at Waveland, MS, NHC said.

With Isaac moving away from the GOM, forecasters turned their eyes farther out to sea, where the NHC on Thursday said Kirk, the 11th named storm of the season, had become the season's fifth hurricane more than 1,000 miles northeast of the northern Leeward Islands. While Kirk packed maximum sustained winds of 90 mph and was rapidly strengthening, it was projected to move steadily north and then northeast and steer well clear of North America, NHC said.

Closer to the GOM, NHC was tracking Tropical Storm Leslie, which formed Thursday afternoon from a tropical depression about 1,125 miles east of the Windward Islands and was drifting west at about 20 mph. Leslie, which had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph, "could become a hurricane over the weekend," NHC said. The forecaster's five-day storm track predicted the storm system would be approaching Puerto Rico early Sunday before turning north toward Bermuda early next week.

Based on data from offshore operator reports submitted as of 11:30 a.m. CDT Thursday the Bureau of Safety Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) estimated that about 75.52% (3.264 Bcf/d) of the current daily natural gas production, and 94.99% (1.311 million b/d) of daily oil output in the GOM was shut-in.

Personnel had been evacuated from 509 of the 596 manned production platforms, equivalent to 85.4% of the total platforms in the GOM. Fifty of the 76 rigs, or about two-thirds, also remained evacuated, BSEE said.

President Obama on Thursday declared Louisiana and Mississippi disaster areas, clearing the way for federal aid to the states to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

BP said Thursday it will donate $1 million to support disaster relief efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi following Hurricane Isaac. The donation will be made to the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army and divided equally between the two states, BP said.

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