Tropical storm Laura is set to become a hurricane before landing on the Gulf Coast on Thursday 27 August 2020, posing a threat to oil and gas infrastructure.
A hurricane warning was sent from Port Bolivar, Texas, west of Morgan City, Louisiana in anticipation of storm Laura, the National Hurricane Center said in a warning at 5 p.m. New York time. . Predictions are divided on whether Laura will become a major hurricane with winds exceeding 111 miles (179 kilometers) per hour or less. Another storm, Marco, lost so much power as it approached the coast that it probably would have disintegrated.
“Laura is expected to reach the northwestern Gulf coast as a hurricane tomorrow Wednesday at the end of the day and Thursday at the beginning,” wrote Dan Brown, a meteorologist at the center, in his forecast. “Don’t focus on the details of the official forecasts given the uncertainty in the forecasts three days away,” he said.
The tropical threat has already resulted in the shutdown of 82 percent of oil production and 57 percent of natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Department of the Interior’s Office of Environmental Security and Enforcement. If Laura became a Category 3, it would be the first major Atlantic hurricane of 2020.
Gulf Coast refineries and petrochemical plants are often found in flat areas vulnerable to flooding. In 2017, an Arkema SA chemical plant about 40 kilometers east of Houston suffered a fire and explosion after being flooded by Hurricane Harvey. In September, Exxon closed its Beaumont refinery in Texas due to flooding from tropical storm Imelda.
Laura will almost certainly not be as harmful as Harvey, however. Harvey hit Texas as a Category 4 storm and then was blocked by wider weather conditions, causing record rainfall in the eastern half of the state for days. Laura can give the landing a hard blow, but she will quickly exit the area, reducing the potential for persistent effects. The last hurricane to hit Texas was Hanna, just under a month ago.
Storm Bear Down on the Gulf
The power platforms in the Gulf of Mexico which account for up to 17% of US oil production and about 3% of gas production are designed to withstand storms of this magnitude; they close and restart regularly as systems pass.
Laura could cause problems at refineries and fuel distribution centers from Houston to Louisiana, said Jim Rouiller, chief meteorologist of the Energy Weather Group. Offshore platforms were retrofitted after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to withstand stronger storms, but onshore flooding could threaten 45% of America’s fuel production capacity found along the Gulf Coast, as well as more of the half of the nation’s gas treatment.
“The big problem is if it hits any of the refineries – the current track is right over Lake Charles and 10% of the capacity is at risk,” said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research. “A swing puts the north coast of Texas at stake”.
Motiva Enterprises LLC and Valero Energy Corp. are closing their Port Arthur, Texas refineries ahead of Laura, while Total Port Arthur is cutting rates by more than 50%. Exxon Beaumont is considering a closure, people familiar with the schedule say.
The city of Port Arthur will order some residents to flee the storm starting Tuesday, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Liquefied natural gas
Laura threatens the epicenter of the US liquefied natural gas export industry, where the terminals are located. Cheniere Energy Inc.’s Sabine Pass, Sempra Energy’s Cameron LNG in Louisiana, and the Freeport LNG Development terminal in Southeast Texas – account for approximately 75% of the U.S. LNG export capacity, or more than 51 million tons per year.
“Although these terminals are built to withstand the rushing winds of hurricanes, the storms will prevent new ships from approaching,” Daniel Myers, analyst at Gelber & Associates, said Monday in the report.
“Western sugarcane in Louisiana between Lake Charles and Lafayette will be the most endangered by Laura,” said Drew Lerner, president of World Weather Inc. in Overland Park, Kansas. Things would be worse if the storm turned further east. “For cotton crops, parts of the western Mississippi Delta area, central and inland parts of Arkansas may also be affected,” he added.
Other impacts include:
Kinder Morgan suspended operations at the Port Sulfur International Maritime Terminal, Louisiana, and reduced operations at the Harvey Terminal in Harvey, Louisiana.
According to a bulletin obtained by Bloomberg, pilots from Houston are planning to stop inbound boarding from 4pm local time in advance of tropical storm Marco.
Chevron has closed its Fourchon and Empire oil terminals in Louisiana and has also closed the Gulf of Mexico pipelines.
Bunge has ceased operations at its grain export facility in Destrehan, Louisiana, while Cargill has suspended operations at its grain export facility in Westwego and Reserve, Louisiana.
Noble Corp. is moving two offshore plants, while BP Plc has evacuated employees from four platforms.
Energy Transfer LP has closed its Stingray Pipeline, which transports gas from offshore fields to Louisiana.
The offshore oil port of Louisiana, a major crude oil import hub, has suspended operations of the marine terminal.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc evacuated employees and halted production in most of its Gulf operations.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves have all declared emergencies. Laura has already killed at least nine people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, according to the AP.
Thirteen storms formed across the Atlantic this year, of which five hit the United States. It’s the fastest start to a hurricane season in records dating back to 1851, said Phil Klotzbach, a storm researcher at Colorado State University.