Offshore operators on Thursday were bringing nonessential personnel to shore and shuttering some production facilities after National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasters said Tropical Storm Karen could reach hurricane strength by Friday.

A hurricane watch associated with Karen took effect Thursday morning from Grand Isle, LA, east to Florida, according to the NHC. A hurricane watch is issued 48 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of tropical storm force winds and indicates that sustained winds of 74 mph or higher are possible within a specific area.

“A turn toward the north and a decrease in forward speed are expected during the next 48 hours,” NHC said Thursday afternoon. “On the forecast track, the center of Karen is expected to approach the coast within the hurricane watch area on Saturday.”

Thursday afternoon Karen remained about 485 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph, and the storm was moving north-northwest at 12 mph.

A hurricane watch was posted from Grand Isle, LA, to Indian Pass in the Florida Panhandle. A tropical storm watch is in effect for west of Grand Isle to east of Morgan City, LA; New Orleans metropolitan area; and Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain.

Karen is the 11th named storm of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season (see Daily GPI, Oct. 3).

“Our forecast calls for it to be right around the border of a hurricane and a tropical storm,” said NHC meteorologist David Zelinsky. Residents in the warning areas should listen to local emergency managers. “Now is the time to begin making preparations.”

The NHC is unaffected by the federal government shutdown because its work is considered vital to protecting life and property. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NHC’s parent agency, advised that some weather satellite images available on its website “may not be up to date” because of the shutdown.

The Department of Interior’s twin offshore overseers, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, are operating with minimal staff because of the federal shutdown.

BSEE’s Eileen P. Angelico, regional communications director for the GOM, said the storm is being monitored.

“The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has continued operations critical to the oversight of safe and environmentally responsible offshore oil and natural gas operations, including inspection of offshore facilities,” Angelico said. “The bureau is currently monitoring Tropical Storm Karen, and the BSEE Gulf of Mexico regional office has opened its Emergency Operations Center to monitor weather and industry response.”

BSEE plans to begin reporting publicly the number of employees evacuated and the impact to oil and natural gas output “if evacuations continue and shut-in of production occurs,” she said. “BSEE will also make data available to and coordinate with our federal partners as the storm develops.”

Destin Pipeline Co. LLC declared a force majeure Thursday afternoon and said it would be “unable to provide transportation services from its offshore receipt points…until further notice.” Offshore production platforms were being contacted “to coordinate shut down with facilities.”

All nonessential personnel were being evacuated from Destin offshore facilities. Onshore receipt and delivery points were to remain in operation. The 225-mile gas pipeline system is majority-owned and operated by BP plc’s Amoco Destin Pipeline Co.; Enbridge Inc. owns a one-third stake.

Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. LLC (Transco) was closely monitoring the storm, according to gas control manager Rich Truxell. “Current forecasts expect landfall somewhere between the Mississippi Delta of eastern Louisiana and the western Florida panhandle this weekend,” he said.

As of Thursday afternoon Transco had not experienced any reduction in gas receipts from offshore locations. Transco is continuing to monitor Karen and will advise as needed all operators, natural gas shippers and producers, Truxell said.

Nonessential personnel in the GOM also were being evacuated by several producers in the eastern and central regions of the GOM including BP, Royal Dutch Shell plc, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Apache Corp., Murphy Oil Corp. and Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc.

BP was monitoring offshore facilities and drilling rigs, and continued to evacuate nonessential personnel from all four company-operated production platforms in the storm’s projected path: Thunder Horse, Na Kika, Atlantis and Mad Dog. “Oil and natural gas production at all BP-operated platforms remains online at this time,” said a BP America Inc. spokesman. “With safety as our top priority, we will continue to monitor weather conditions closely to determine next steps.”

Anadarko was evacuating personnel and had shuttered the Neptune spar platform in Viosca Knoll Block 826 in water 1,930 feet deep. Neptune has the capacity to produce 23 MMcf/d of gas and 14,000 b/d of oil. “The safety of our personnel is our highest priority, and as a precaution with the tropical storm approaching, we are removing nonessential workers from our operated facilities in the central and eastern Gulf of Mexico, including the Independence Hub, Neptune, Constitution and Marco Polo platforms,” said an Anadarko spokesman.

Anadarko’s GOM operations between April and June reported average sales volumes of about 100,000 boe/d, including 280 MMcf/d of natural gas. “We have shut in production at the Neptune facility, and we will continue to monitor the track of the weather and are prepared to remove remaining personnel and shut in additional production as necessary to protect the environment,” said Anadarko’s spokesman.

“We are making plans to secure our drilling operations in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, while also evacuating some nonessential personnel,” according to a spokeswoman for the Shell Hurricane Incident Command Team. “There are no production impacts at this time,” she said at noon. “Our priorities at this time are ensuring the safety of personnel, taking necessary precautions, minimizing impacts to the environment, and minimizing production and operational impact.”

Apache recently completed the sale of its GOM shallow water assets to Fieldwood Energy LLC, but it holds a substantial portfolio of projects in the deepwater. Production from the GOM deepwater during the second quarter was 13,545 boe/d.

Forecasters expect Karen to weaken as it approaches the Gulf Coast “but the storm could still be near hurricane strength at landfall. A cold front sweeping from the Plains through Texas, which was to hit the Gulf Coast region late Saturday, should turn Karen northeasterly, away from the Louisiana coast and more toward coastal Alabama and Florida.

Initial forecasts indicate Karen might miss the Port Fourchon, LA, oil import facility and other refineries along the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge, LA.

President Obama Thursday afternoon reactivated key furloughed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during a press briefing the president has ordered resources be made available for those affected by the storm.

“FEMA has begun to recall currently furloughed employees necessary to serve functions of the agency that protects life and property as they prepare for potential landfall of Tropical Storm Karen,” Carney said.

Satellite loops “show that Karen is a medium-sized storm with an area of very intense thunderstorms along its northern and eastern flanks,” said meteorologist Jeff Masters.

“Most of the models predict landfall will occur along the western Florida Panhandle Saturday afternoon or evening,” Masters said. “The usually reliable European model has Karen making landfall over eastern Louisiana, though. If Karen does follow this more westerly path, the storm will be weaker, since there is more dry air and higher wind shear to the west.

“Since almost all of Karen’s heavy thunderstorms will be displaced to the east by high wind shear, there will be relatively low rainfall totals of one to three inches to the immediate west of where the center makes landfall. Much higher rainfall totals of four to eight inches can be expected to the east.”