HOUSTON Oil companies removed nonessential workers from offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday due to the threat of a gathering storm, with only a small amount of production stopped so far.
Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) said late Wednesday it shut 1,000 barrels of daily crude oil production along with 55 thousand cubic feet per day of natural gas output -- just a fraction of the region's capacity.
Oil prices were up, briefly hitting a record above $82 per barrel, as traders weighed the possibility of severe disruptions to output from the region, home to 1.3 million bpd of U.S. oil and 7.7 billion cfd of gas output.
The National Hurricane Center said Wednesday a tropical disturbance over Florida could strengthen into a tropical cyclone and cross into the Gulf of Mexico in the coming days, threatening a quarter of the nation's oil production.
"We're pulling the nonessential staff to free up the choppers (helicopters) in case we need them, should a significant storm materialize," a spokesman for Total SA (TOTF.PA) said.
Shell Oil Co (RDSa.L) evacuated 300 workers on Tuesday and planned to remove an additional 400 on Wednesday.
Anadarko (APC.N), BP Plc (BP.L), Chevron Corp CVX.N, ConocoPhillips (COP.N) and Marathon Oil (MRO.N) also said they were removing nonessential workers, but added that oil and gas production levels were not affected.
U.S. energy and commodity markets watch tropical storms closely because they can interfere with oil, natural gas, and crop production.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 temporarily knocked out a quarter of U.S. crude and fuel production, toppling offshore platforms, wrecking undersea pipelines, flooding coastal refineries and sending energy prices to then-record highs.
The companies were carrying out the evacuations because the disturbance could rapidly develop into a more powerful storm once the system enters the Gulf late Tuesday or early Wednesday, said a meteorologist with Weather Research Center in Houston.
"It may come into the Gulf tonight, develop and be inland in 72 hours," Weather Research Center President Jill Hasling said. "It could go directly through some large oil fields. You don't have the luxury of one of the Cape Verde storms that you can watch for two weeks."
Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N), El Paso Corp EP.N and Apache (APA.N) said they were monitoring the storm while determining which of their facilities might be affected by it.
Computer models of the disturbance's progress are mixed with some showing a possible category 1 hurricane while others show only a mass of thunderstorms passing over the southeastern United States in the next five days.
The NHC will name the next tropical storm "Jerry." A tropical storm packs winds of 39 to 73 mph (63-117 kph).
(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis and Janet McGurty in New York)