Offshore oil and natural gas operators in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) that had been reboarding platforms and rigs to restore production following Hurricane Gustav now are evacuating employees ahead of Hurricane Ike, which is expected to emerge in the southeastern GOM by Tuesday night. Several forecasts put the storm on track to strike the upper Texas coast by this weekend.

Ike, which pounded Cuba Sunday and Monday, is on a projected path to strike the Texas coastline around the Houston-Galveston area on Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). The NHC reported Monday that Ike may be around 125 miles southeast of Houston by 8 a.m. EDT Saturday, moving to the northwest. However, the NHC’s five-day forecast showed that Ike has the potential to strike a broad region from South Texas to Alabama.

In its 5 p.m. EDT forecast Monday, the NHC said Ike “has been wobbling westward,” and “track models are tightly clustered about a general west-northwestern track during the next couple of days taking the center of Ike along or just south of Cuba” Monday night, then into the southeastern GOM by Tuesday night. meteorologist Dave Samuhel expects Ike to deliver a glancing blow Wednesday to the Florida Keys before it moves into the GOM with tropical storm-force winds and rain. The storm then is expected to reenergize as it moves into the warm Gulf waters. It could reach Category Three strength as it tracks west, said Samuhel.

Most forecasters put Ike on a collision course with the Texas coast, but meteorologist Jeff Masters is betting on Louisiana.

“As Ike moves approaches within 300 miles of the Louisiana coast on Friday, there will be another trough of low pressure capable of turning the storm to the north,” which “will be strong enough to turn Ike northwards into central or western Louisiana,” Masters said. “I would lean toward a landfall in western Louisiana at this point.”

Regardless of its destination, “it will continue to stall energy supply output recovery stemming from Gustav, and may actually increase the amount of oil and natural gas shut in across the northern Gulf of Mexico between now and the end of the week,” said Lehman Brothers analyst Daniel Guertin. “Given the current weakening trend with Ike, we think the chance of this being a major hurricane in the energy producing region is still about 30%, despite the forecast track taking [Ike] directly toward the northern Gulf of Mexico late this week.”

As of midday Monday 64.2% of the natural gas production in the GOM remained shut in, according to the Minerals Management Service (MMS). Pre-Gustav, the GOM was producing 7.4 Bcf/d. Operators’ reports also indicated that 79.4% of oil production from the GOM was shut in; as of June, oil output was 1.3 million b/d.

Based on data from 62 reports submitted by midday Monday to MMS, personnel evacuated because of Gustav still had not returned to 200 production platforms, equivalent to 27.9 % of the 717 manned platforms. Personnel from 15 rigs also remained evacuated; this is equivalent to 12.4 % of the 121 rigs currently operating offshore.

The evacuation numbers were rising late Monday as operators prepared for Ike.

Shell Oil Co., which had redeployed most of its offshore staff over the weekend, planned to evacuate all of its 1,400-member offshore workforce by midweek. Other operators, including BP plc, ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp. and several major independents, also prepared to evacuate their offshore employees.

“We will continue to bring personnel back to shore, with the intention of completing a full evacuation of personnel from Shell-operated facilities on Wednesday, in advance of Ike,” said spokesperson Robin Lebovitz. “Shell had begun to bring some production back on-line, after being shut in because of Hurricane Gustav. Minimal production from Shell-operated assets will continue to flow until we have to fully evacuate and once again shut in production because of a hurricane.”

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. spokesman John Christiansen said Monday that the Anadarko-operated Boomvang, Gunnison and Nansen facilities, located in the Central and Western GOM, and its Constitution and Marco Polo facilities, which are located in the eastern part of the GOM, had ramped up production. However, Independence Hub, which can process up to 1 Bcf/d, and Neptune remained shut in “pending localized, minor surface repairs and availability of pipelines and infrastructure.”

Most of the initial damage reports from Gustav were encouraging, but two Transocean Inc. rigs operating in the GOM suffered damage. The mooring system of the Transocean Amirante, a semisubmersible, was damaged; the rig was being towed out of Ike’s path to a shipyard in Mobile, AL. The Transocean Marianas also sustained minor damage from Gustav and was fully evacuated as a precaution ahead of the latest storm.

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