Given Tropical Storm Gustav’s relatively slow progression, it’s difficult for Gulf of Mexico (GOM) offshore operators to predict where the storm might wind up. While some said they were bringing all crews ashore, others awaited further developments. And some split the difference, opting to retrieve only nonessential personnel for the time being. To some extent timing depended on how large a company’s offshore contingent was and how long it would take to get them in.

Shell Oil Co. said Thursday it was pulling all of its workers out and had begun shut-in procedures. It expected to have everyone out before Saturday. Anadarko Petroleum Corp. said it would have all employees out by Sunday. But ExxonMobil was sitting tight, and Devon Energy was just evacuating nonessential workers from two deepwater drilling rigs and waiting to see what develops, the companies said.

The center of Gustav made landfall on the eastern tip of Jamaica at about 6 p.m. The NHC said a flyover measured wind speed at close to 75 miles per hour, but it was not consistent enough to bump Gustav back into the hurricane category. The storm is expected to lose some force over Jamaica but strengthen again once it emerges over the open waters of the northwestern Caribbean by Friday. “Conditions appear rather favorable for strengthening. It is possible that Gustav could rapidly intensify at some point within the next couple of days,” the hurricane center said in its latest advisory Thursday. The storm was expected to move near or over the Cayman Islands Friday or Friday night, according to NHC.

Gustav’s projected landfall had shifted a bit west of the previously expected New Orleans area. NHC’s latest most-likely tracking now looks for Gustav to go ashore Tuesday morning in rural Terrebonne Parish on Louisiana’s coast southwest of New Orleans. The Crescent City would still be in danger under that scenario as the heaviest rains and strongest winds of a hurricane tend to be on the north and east sides.

Gustav’s maximum sustained winds weakened to as slow as 45 mph overnight Wednesday, but it had nearly reached hurricane strength (minimum of 74 mph) by Thursday afternoon. Meanwhile, a state of emergency had been declared for essentially all of the central and western Gulf Coast region as federal, state and local officials — who doubtless remember hurricanes Katrina and Rita of 2005 — prepared to batten down the hatches.

Weather-conscious politicians of both parties responded, too. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a Democrat, departed his party’s convention in Denver early Wednesday night, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, suspended plans to attend his party’s convention in St. Paul, MN, next week.

Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters said in his blog early Thursday afternoon that there was a “70% chance that Gustav will significantly hurt oil and gas production in the Gulf” as most of the cone of uncertainty lies in the major oil and gas producing areas.

“The final landfall location of Gustav depends on the strength and speed of the trough [of low pressure moving across the Midwest U.S.]. This trough may not be strong enough to pull Gustav to a landfall in the central Gulf Coast. Instead, a blocking ridge of high pressure may build in over the southern U.S. by Monday, forcing Gustav to move slowly westward towards Texas.”

Meanwhile, Tropical Depression Eight developed early Thursday and by mid-morning had strengthened into Tropical Storm Hanna. As of 5 p.m. AST Thursday, the center of Hanna was about 260 miles northeast of the northern Leeward Islands. The storm was moving toward the west-northwest at about 12 mph, NHC said. At this point Hanna does not appear to be a GOM threat, as NHC expects the storm to be centered well to the northeast of the Bahamas during the next couple of days.

A large tropical wave 775 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands was rated as having low development potential by NHC. Another tropical wave that was still just off the coast of West Africa had medium development potential, the agency said. Also being watched was an area of disturbed weather over the southern Bay of Campeche.

Shell said Thursday that based on forecasts that Tropical Storm Gustav would strengthen again into a hurricane and enter the GOM later this week the company was “working toward a full evacuation of Shell-operated assets in the Gulf. [Thursday] Shell plans to evacuate approximately 300 personnel from its Gulf of Mexico operations. [Wednesday] Shell safely evacuated almost 400 people. We expect to evacuate the remaining 600 personnel on Friday and Saturday. Given the evacuation of personnel and forecast track, we have begun shut-in procedures for a few Shell-operated assets that require long lead times, such as subsea wells. These require special operational procedures and can take several days to shut-in properly to ensure re-start after the storm passes.”

“The nature of this storm is it’s very difficult for us to get a firm handle on where it’s going to go,” Devon spokesman Chip Minty told NGI Thursday.

ExxonMobil was sitting tight. The company said it is “determining which of its facilities may potentially be in the path of the storm, preparing those structures for heavy wind and rain, and identifying personnel for possible evacuation to shore. Currently, there is no impact to production, and no personnel have been evacuated.”

Chevron Thursday afternoon began evacuating nonessential personnel, said Qiana A. Wilson, a spokesperson for the San Ramon, CA-based producer. Chevron, which is the largest leaseholder in the GOM, has deepwater infrastructure that includes the Blind Faith development, which is scheduled to ramp up this year. It also is developing the Tahiti and Perdido deepwater projects, scheduled to be completed in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Besides monitoring its offshore facilities, Chevron has a hurricane preparedness plan in place for its onshore personnel if it is warranted, Wilson said. “Chevron’s plan instructs employees to secure their safety and the safety of their families first,” she said.

Like everyone else in the GOM energy patch, ConocoPhillips on Thursday was trying to puzzle out where the storm/potential hurricane might land.

“The projected path of Gustav is still highly dependent on the status of high pressure over the eastern Gulf of Mexico, but several computer models continue to predict the storm will make landfall between the Alabama and East Texas coast, likely on Tuesday,” ConocoPhillips said.

ConocoPhillips said that its Magnolia platform will remain shut in; it had previously been shut in for routine maintenance. “Crews are preparing their equipment for possible storm conditions,” said a ConocoPhillips spokesperson. “We expect to evacuate a total of 44 ConocoPhillips and contract personnel [Thursday]. Plans are in place to complete the removal of the remaining personnel on Friday and Saturday if the storm continues on the projected track.”

Similar preparations have begun on ConocoPhillips’ South Louisiana Inland Water asset operations. Specifically, the producer said rig operations on the Caillou Island 301-101 well have been stopped, and the rig was being moved off location to an inland dock.

A new drilling operation by ConocoPhillips at its Bay St. Elaine “Allen” well also was terminated Thursday, and the rig was to be moved off location on Friday to an inland dock. Miscellaneous well and construction activities on three jack-up boats, three crane barge spreads, and one remedial spread were to be suspended later on Thursday. The remaining crews will be evacuated or standby their equipment at the dock. Production operations in South Louisiana remain in normal mode.

Operations at ConocoPhillips’ Gulf Coast refineries remain normal “at this time,” said the Houston-based producer. “However, appropriate planning is under way to allow for the safe shut down of refinery operations and the removal of refinery personnel as circumstances warrant.”

Shell has about 1,400 contract and full-time employees in the GOM. More than 80% of Shell’s U.S. oil and gas output comes from the GOM, and the company is the leading deepwater producer. Shell-operated GOM gross production averages 510,000 boe/d, and the company operates five tension leg platforms (TLP) and several other facilities and subsea systems in the GOM. Its eastern GOM portfolio includes three TLPs: Mars, Ursa and Ram-Powell. Its eastern GOM fixed platforms include: Cognac, West Delta 143 and Main Pass 252. Subsea systems include Europa, King, Deimos, Crosby, Princess, Mensa, Tahoe, SE Tahoe and Einset.

The western GOM portfolio of Shell includes TLPs Auger and Brutus, as well as fixed platforms Enchilada, Bullwinkle, Cougar and Boxer. Subsea systems include Macaroni, Serrano, Oregano, Llano, Habanero, Angus, Manatee, Troika, Popeye, Gyrfalcon and Glider.

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. reported no shut-ins to its offshore operations — but that will change by the end of the weekend, said spokesman John Christiansen. “We expect to evacuate all nonessential personnel by Saturday,” said Christiansen. “We anticipate a total evacuation and shut-in of all of our operated Gulf of Mexico facilities and drilling rigs by Sunday…Once all of our operations are safely evacuated and production has been shut-in to protect the environment, we will continue to monitor the weather and will not return our workers to the Gulf until it is safe to do so.”

Anadarko, which has eight operated platforms in the GOM — including the deepwater natural gas platform Independence Hub — has about 600 employees and contractors working offshore. Its production is more than 150,000 boe/d net in the GOM.

Thursday Apache Corp. said it was evacuating nonessential workers, but no production had been shut in, according to a Reuters report. The news service also said Murphy Oil Corp. had begun evacuation of nonessential personnel.

GOM production losses that are in the offing will be made less significant by low market-area demand. Pipelines such as Transco are taking steps to prevent buildups of excessive linepack during the Labor Day weekend (see Daily GPI, Aug. 27).

Pipeline company El Paso Corp. is “monitoring the storm and its intensity,” spokesman Richard Wheatley told NGI. “It’s too early to speculate on what we may do,” but Wheatley said “contingency plans are in place.” El Paso’s Tennessee Gas Pipeline and Southern Natural Gas systems both tap supply regions in the GOM. Wheatley noted that any notices would be posted on El Paso’s pipeline bulletin boards.

Wednesday was a busy day at helicopter shuttle provider Air Logistics LLC’s GOM operations. But Thursday, Friday and Saturday will be busier as the oil and gas industry runs for cover from Gustav.

Danny Holder, director of Air Logistics GOM operations, told NGI the company was flying out nonessential personnel on Wednesday afternoon, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday would be focusing on evacuating the eastern and central GOM. “So we are busy,” he said. “We will be busier the next three days as people are taking this storm…they’re taking it seriously, I would say. The path of it looks like it will come right down the center line, heading for New Orleans; in that path it crosses a large portion of the production in the eastern Gulf.”

There are four major helicopter operators serving the Gulf and a number of smaller players, Holder said. Air Logistics can transport about 600 people a day. The lion’s share of the company’s routine work is done under contract. During storm evacuations, whatever excess capacity is available is provided on an ad hoc basis. Still, there aren’t enough helicopters flying in the GOM to get everyone out fast enough, so the oil and gas industry also relies on transport by boat, said Holder, who returned to the GOM about three months ago after a six-year assignment in Nigeria.

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