Almost all of the oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) and 72% of the natural gas was shut in as of Friday, at the same time Hurricane Rita dropped in intensity from a Category 4 to a Category 3 less than 200 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Rita is “a dangerous hurricane,” according to the National Hurricane Center, and its core was poised to strike at daybreak Saturday around the “Golden Triangle” of Texas, home to some of the largest refineries and chemical manufacturers in the country.
According to a midday Friday update from the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which had reports from 74 producers, shut-in gas output totaled 7.204 Bcf/d, or 72.04% of the average 10 Bcf/d production. Cumulative gas shut-in since Aug. 26 is 140.502 Bcf, or 3.49% of the normal production of 3.65 Tcf/year.
Shut-in oil production Friday totaled 1.487 bbl/d, or 99.125% of the daily output, which is currently 1.5 million bbl/d. Cumulative shut-in production since Aug. 26 is 30.28 million bbl/d, or 5.531% of the yearly 547.5 million bbl produced offshore.
MMS also reported 77.41% of the 819 manned platforms and 67.16% of the 134 rigs now operating in the Gulf were evacuated.
Rita was on a “slow, weakening trend” and downgraded to a Category 3 storm with winds around 125 miles per hour, the NHC reported in a 4 p.m. CST update. On Friday, the NHC said the storm appeared on track to make landfall around the Golden Triangle, an area of extreme southeast Texas near the Louisiana border. The “triangle” is formed by Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, the largest cities, and the “golden” refers to the wealth from the original Spindletop oil strike near Beaumont in 1901.
Maximum sustained winds in the early afternoon had decreased from 140 mph, and a further weakening was expected before landfall. However, “Rita is still expected to come ashore as a dangerous hurricane.”
Hurricane force winds extended outward up to 85 miles from the center, and tropical storm winds extended outward up to 205 miles. Coastal storm surge flooding of 15 feet above normal tide levels was expected locally, and up to 20 feet at head of bays and nearby rivers. Large swells generated by Rita were likely to affect most portions of the Gulf Coast, NHC said.
Jack Colley, director of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said parts of the state would begin feeling tropical storm force winds about 3 p.m. CST Friday. He said Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties “could expect probably sustained hurricane winds, beginning at midnight [Friday], for the next 16 hours, an incredible storm.”
Rita is expected to produce rainfall accumulations of eight to 12 inches, with isolated amounts of up to 20 inches over southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana as it moves inland. Since the storm is expected to slow down significantly after making landfall, the NHC predicted total accumulations in excess of 25 inches are possible over the next several days across eastern Texas into western Louisiana.
A hurricane warning on Friday afternoon was in effect from Sargent, TX to Morgan City, LA, and a tropical storm warning is in effect for the southeastern coast of Louisiana, east of Morgan City to the mouth of the Pearl River, including metropolitan New Orleans and Lake Ponchartrain, and south of Sargent to Port Aransas, TX.
Dr. Jeff Masters, director of meterology at The Weather Underground, said Friday the “heat potential of the waters beneath Rita show that she will soon be passing to an area of lower available heat (dark blue area). This should put an end to any intensification cycle she may be starting on.”
However, “although Rita should be a Category 3 or 4 hurricane at landfall, she will still carry to the coast a storm surge characteristic of a much stronger hurricane. A Category 4 or 5 level storm surge is likely along a 40-60 miles stretch of coast near and to the right of where the storm makes landfall on Saturday. Storm surge heights will peak at 15-20 feet in some bays, and bring the ocean inland up to 50 miles from the coast. This surge will be lower and cover less length of coastline than Katrina’s surge, but will still cause widespread destruction” in Port Arthur and Orange, TX and Cameron, LA, he said.
Forecaster Charlie Notis of Freese-Notis Weather in Iowa is not so sure Rita will be the storm other forecasters are predicting, and said Rita may weaken into a tropical storm before it made landfall early Saturday.
“The latest satellite photos are showing Rita falling apart rapidly,” Notis said. “The eye is almost non-discernable. The whole hurricane structure looks ragged.”
Notis said the storm was fighting very dry air and probable sheering as it plowed its way through the Gulf of Mexico toward the Texas-Louisiana border. Pressure was rising steadily on Friday, a sign of weakening. “From what once was a super hurricane, this could turn into one of the biggest duds of all time. Let’s hope this is the trend.”
It may take a few days before oil and natural gas producers assess and determine what damage Rita inflicted on their offshore operations in the GOM. However, based on projections at midday Friday, Rita likely will storm across some of the most active producing areas in the offshore, with about 30% of the mobile offshore installations in her direct path.
Rita is likely to cross the offshore drilling areas of the Walker Ridge and Keathley Canyon, then move north across the eastern portions of Garden Banks and the western portions of Green Canyon. These two areas only have about 40 offshore platforms, but “all of these are major deepwater projects,” including Kerr-McGee Corp.’s Red Hawk spur and ConocoPhillips’ Magnolia field, according to RigLogix, which provides comprehensive rig data.
After passing through these deepwater areas, Rita will begin to push onto the shallower waters of the continental shelf, first reaching the southern additions of South Marsh, Vermillion, East Cameron and West Cameron,” the data service noted. “Rita is likely to continue across the rest of the West Cameron area and reach large portions of the High Island and Galveston areas before making landfall east of the Houston area.”
According to RigLogix, there are 534 unmanned platforms and 215 manned platforms in Rita’s projected path. Overall, those rigs, pre-Rita and pre-Katrina, have a crew capacity of 3,876 personnel.
West Cameron, south of Lake Charles, LA, “is likely to be one of the areas hardest hit by Rita and will most likely see some of the worst damage to its offshore installations. This area is one of the most actively producing and explored areas in the Gulf of Mexico. It has the third highest number of unmanned offshore platforms and the fifth highest number of manned platforms of any area in the GOM, with a total of 292 unmanned and 88 manned platforms.”
Another 22 mobile offshore drilling rigs are in the West Cameron area, including 19 jackups, two submersibles and one platform rig. “Of those rigs, 10 of them are owned and managed by TODCO, The Offshore Drilling Co., which is the rig manager with the most rigs facing possible damage from Rita.”
There are another 50 or more rigs in areas likely to be damaged by Rita. About 16 semisubmersible rigs are located in the Walker Ridge, Garden Banks, and Green Canyon areas. Closer to shore, 25 jackup rigs are located in the areas of High Island, East Cameron, Vermilion and Galveston.
“If Rita is able to inflict as much damage to the offshore rigs in its path as Katrina was, there will be some fairly serious losses to the Gulf of Mexico rig fleet,” said RigLogix. “Approximately 60 rigs stood in the direct path of Katrina, and of those rigs, eight were damaged severely or lost entirely. That is about 12% of the rigs in Katrina’s path. There were an additional 10 rigs that suffered less severe damages, which amounts to another 15% of the rigs in Katrina’s path.”
Assuming a similar rate of damage for Rita, RigLogix estimated nine rigs could be severely damaged and another 12 rigs with lesser damage. “That is a significant portion of the GOM rig fleet which is already depleted from the losses suffered by Katrina.”
To view the mobile offshore rig data compiled by RigLogix, visit www.riglogix.com.
Besides potential offshore damage, Rita’s punch may be “potentially worse” for the U.S. refining sector than Hurricane Katrina was because of extreme flooding in Port Arthur and Beaumont, TX, key refining centers of the country, said Ben Sebree, vice president for governmental affairs for the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
Sebree, whose association represents major integrated oil and gas companies, on Friday called Rita “as bad, potentially worse,” for Gulf Coast refineries. “This storm looks like another Katrina.”
The Port Arthur/Beaumont area is home to four major refineries operated by ExxonMobil Corp., with capacity of 348,000 bbl/d; Motiva Enterprises, 235,000 bbl/d; Total SA, 180,000 bbl/d; and Valero Energy Corp., 250,000 bbl/d.
Some models show Rita producing a 25-foot storm surge near landfall, and Sebree said the surge would put Port Arthur under 10 feet of water. The city of 58,000 is above sea level, and it would drain more quickly than New Orleans, but “The fear is serious flooding and facility damage from the wind, that could result in weeks to get them operational again.”
Flooding could damage electrical systems, which could potentially require months to repair, he said. “When the ocean comes in and floods your facility, you’ve got a big problem.”
Well ahead of the storm producers had shut in offshore facilities and closed down much of their onshore operations along the Gulf Coast, including refineries, processing plants and Houston office buildings.
Having dealt with the devastation and loss from Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Louisiana and Mississippi coast on Aug. 29, just 26 days before Rita hit the Texas coast, companies already were planning for the aftermath. Chevron Corp. said it had set up a toll-free telephone number to help employees let the company know of their situations. Any employees affected by the storm in Houston and the Texas gulf region are asked to contact the company by calling (800) 334-3963. BP plc continued its final preparations in anticipation of Rita’s arrival. The oil major typically produces about 400,000 boe/d (net) in the Gulf, “but this capacity had already been impacted by Hurricane Katrina,” the company said.
Exxon Mobil said it had shut down its production, refining, chemical, pipeline and office facilities in the path of the storm, but was continuing to operate its North Houston Terminal so that first response vehicles can access fuel and continue to make deliveries to stranded motorists. The company said it was “working very closely with the Texas Department of Public Safety to use every resource available to minimize supply disruptions and assist in the evacuation process in a safe and timely manner,” and has extended its Hurricane Katrina fuel donation program to the areas in Texas and Louisiana affected by Hurricane Rita. First responders eligible for the fuel program include police, fire and rescue squads, as well as hospital and medical facilities.
Among other things, BP closed its greater Houston offices and manufacturing plants on Wednesday, and set contingency plans for situations that could displace employees from their typical work locations. BP Energy, which markets natural gas and power throughout North America, activated and manned its designated back-up location and server systems in order to maintain business that is normally handled out of Houston. It also deployed additional personnel and using its other offices and systems around the country to support customers. And BP gave Rita her own website. For further information, visit www.bprita.com.
Also, CenterPoint Energy, which is headquartered in Houston, said it was ordering materials and arranging workers to help repair any damage from Rita, and said it would need 5,000 to 10,000 utility linemen and tree trimmers when the storm has passed.
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