After grazing the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula Thursday night as it entered the Gulf of Mexico, Tropical Storm Claudette quickly forced natural gas and oil producers on Friday to begin implementing preventative measures on their Gulf platforms, including production shut-ins and employee evacuations. One forecaster warned that Western and Central Gulf Hubs could be in big trouble come Tuesday morning.

Although winds slowed on Friday from the 70 mph logged for a majority of Thursday, meteorologists expected Claudette would gain strength as it moved across the warm waters of the Gulf.

If the storm reaches hurricane proportions, vulnerable natural gas platforms and infrastructure in the Gulf could pay the price. Just last year, an estimated 90 Bcf was knocked off the market from Gulf shut-ins during a four-week period by the one-two combination of Hurricanes Isidore and Lili (see Daily GPI (Oct. 21, 2002).

Weather 2000 thinks the storm could do considerable damage. “Considering bands of thunderstorms from Claudette are already sweeping across the Florida Keys, it is our advice that all residents/workers anywhere in the Gulf or on the Gulf Coast, monitor the progress of this storm,” Weather 2000 said in a Friday afternoon update. “Our research has continually shown that glancing blows to small land-masses can often redirect tropical storms almost haphazardly (analogous to pushing a large water balloon in a pool), and the stronger Claudette becomes, the more difficult it will be to ‘turn that steering wheel’ to the West.”

Many Gulf producers were heeding that warning on Friday. “Shell Exploration and Production Co. continues to monitor Claudette’s movements and developments,” Shell said in a statement. “Currently, Shell has shut in approximately 10,000 barrels of oil and 66 MMcf/d due to Claudette.” The shut-in area of the Gulf is the Garden Banks region, which is located approximately 250 miles southeast of Houston.

As of Friday morning, Shell said it has evacuated 60 non-essential personnel from its facilities in the Central and Western portions of the Gulf. “Shell also has prepared transportation capacity to evacuate all personnel from the Central and Western portions of the Gulf by the end of the day should it become necessary,” the company added.

ExxonMobil spokesman Bob Davis said his company has entered a phase one alert for its Gulf operations. Davis said the company is monitoring the storm “very closely” and is evacuating and or not sending out non-essential people to the platforms.

Unocal and Kerr McGee said they are following similar procedures. Unocal’s spokeswoman noted that evacuations will continue as events unfold, adding that a number of the facilities can be remotely operated.

BP spokesman Larry Thomas said, “several hundred personnel have been evacuated today [Friday]. We have had no BP-operated shut-ins at the present time.” Because the path of Claudette is still a mystery, Thomas said the evacuations are occurring throughout the Gulf.

According to Apache’s Bill Mintz, evacuations and production curtailments have occurred on some gulf platforms in the expected path of the storm. Additionally, some amount of gas has been shut-in due to pipeline operational concerns. Mintz noted that the amount of gas either curtailed or shut-in did not represent a substantial amount of the 580 MMcf of Apache’s daily gas production.

“Tropical Storm Claudette brushed the Yucatan bringing steady rain to Cozumel [Mexico],” meteorologist R. Hulecki said in a Weather Channel update Friday afternoon. “The thunderstorm activity has since decreased and the pressure is holding steady at 1,008 [millibars]. The storm should slowly head out over open Gulf waters today and is forecast to strengthen. It should eventually track more in a westerly fashion.”

According to the U.S. National Weather Service, Claudette as of 2 p.m. EDT was about 95 miles northwest of Cancun, Mexico, moving northwest at 12 mph with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph. Little change in strength was expected in the next 24 hours. According to the weather service, current landfall projections are targeting the Texas coast with the greatest probabilities in South Texas or northeastern Mexico.

Earlier in the week (see Daily GPI, July 9), Weather 2000 said Claudette faced three main hurdles on her way into the Gulf. As of Friday, all three had been crossed. The storm achieved closed, low-level circulation development on Tuesday and endured southerly wind shear on Wednesday/Thursday. All that remained was for Claudette to steer clear of, or avoid any detriment to core structure from, land masses in its path, which was achieved Friday, the New York City-based consulting firm said.

Weather 2000 said Friday afternoon that Claudette briefly achieved Hurricane status late Thursday (although official advisories will only archive a maximum of 70 mph). “As we advised previously, if Claudette was to have reached the Yucatan as a measly, disorganized tropical storm or depression, the Yucatan could have been the end of her story, degenerating her to a mass of rain,” Weather 2000 added. “But Claudette has remained resilient as we thought she would, and now this will become a big post-Yucatan concern for all Gulf interests.”

The company added that most non-meteorologists have been misinterpreting satellite imagery, “believing Claudette’s center is the epicenter of clouds, while in fact the center of circulation has been over the Northeastern quadrant of the Yucatan Peninsula, with convection displaced to the North and East.

“Since Claudette has been sustaining herself decently through two major hurdles, prospects for further organization and intensification are extremely promising, and we believe the validation of our quote ‘we believe Claudette will be a Hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico,’…is imminent.”

Reiterating statements made earlier in the week, Weather 2000 said all interests along the Texas Gulf Coast remain fair game for a potential hurricane strike. The company added that it continues to believe that forecast tracks from other services have been underestimating the northwesterly curvature of the storm.

“The almost due-West projection earlier this week from NHC [National Hurricane Center] and others, bringing Claudette straight into Mexico has already been proven in error (or less precise), and we believe further ‘forcing’ of Claudette straight into the Rio Grande is similarly underestimating the northerly component of her trajectory vector.”

Sticking to its guns, Weather 2000 said it continues to believe coastal hubs such as Corpus Christie, Galveston/Houston, New Orleans (and locales in between), which were previously discounted by other forecasters, are potential eventual destinations for Claudette which should be considered.

While its low-end of scenarios calls for Claudette to lethargically strengthen back to 65-75 mph and curve back toward Brownsville, with a strike late Monday, the more critical end of scenarios — more in line with Weather 2000 research — calls for Claudette to more explosively develop and be more resilient in sustaining a Northwesterly vector.

“This latter prospect, which has been largely swept under the rug by others, places a potentially large, Category 1-2 hurricane on the doorstep of major West/Central Gulf Hubs Tuesday morning.”

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