* NOAA sees 8-14 hurricanes, most since record 15 in 2005
* Says increased chance of landfall in “more active” year
* Storm surge from hurricane could bring oil slick inland
* Season will be active, but how active depends on La Nina
* Outlook helps push oil prices higher Thursday-analysts (Updates oil price in paragraph 9)
By Christopher Doering
WASHINGTON, May 27 (Reuters) - The Atlantic storm season may be the most intense since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina killed over a thousand and disrupted oil production by crashing through Gulf of Mexico energy facilities, the U.S. government’s top weather agency predicted on Thursday.
In its first forecast for the storm season that begins next Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast 14 to 23 named storms, with 8 to 14 developing into hurricanes, nearly matching 2005’s record of 15.
Three to seven of those could be major Category 3 or above hurricanes, with winds of more than 110 miles per hour (177 km per hour), the agency said, echoing earlier predictions from meteorologists that a particularly severe season could disrupt U.S. oil, gas and refinery operations. [ID:nN26214825]
“If this outlook holds true, this season could be one of the more active on record,” said Jane Lubchenco, NOAA’s administrator. “The greater likelihood of storms brings an increased risk of a landfall.” <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ For a factbox on hurricane forecasts see [ID:nHURRICANE] For a factbox on the impact of big storms [ID:nN27378096] ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
In addition to the risk that major hurricanes can pose to about one-quarter of U.S. oil production and more than a 10th of natural gas output offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, this year’s storms could threaten to complicate efforts to combat the environmental disaster of BP Plc’s (BP.L) gushing oil well.
“If we have a severe storm come into the Gulf, my biggest concern is storm surge. Pushing oil up on land even further, up on beach areas in Mississippi, possibly Alabama,” said Aaron Studwell, chief meteorologist for First Insight Trading in Houston.
He said the surge, or the rush of water on shore, would soil beach areas and further inundate marshes that current surface mediation efforts are trying to protect. Even if BP’s current “top kill” effort to stop the gushing well works, the oil hanging at and below the surface still needs to be cleaned up before a storm makes it worse, Studwell said.
Government officials said hurricanes will impact the worsening Gulf oil slick depending on the storm’s size, strength and track. They acknowledged storm surges carrying oil inland is a major concern.
Industry analysts said the hurricane forecast helped push crude oil futures higher. The front month July NYMEX crude contract CLc1 settled $3.04 higher, up 4.25 percent, at $74.55 a barrel. That extended gains in two days to 8.4 percent, the biggest since a two-day advance on August 18-19.
“The NOAA forecast calling for an intense Atlantic hurricane season this year is having an impact on oil futures, with storm premium being factored into prices,” said Phil Streible, senior market strategist for Lind-Waldock in Chicago
The hurricane season officially starts on June 1 and typically peaks between late August and mid-October. An average Atlantic hurricane season brings 11 tropical storms with six hurricanes, including two major hurricanes, NOAA said.
NOAA forecasters said there was an 85 percent chance of an above-average hurricane season this year as a result of warm water temperatures and winds conducive to storms, but just how active will depend in large part on La Nina. The weather condition promotes the development of Atlantic storms.
“The main uncertainty in this outlook is how much above normal the season will be. Whether or not we approach the high end of the predicted ranges depends partly on whether or not La Nina develops this summer,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
“Conditions are becoming increasingly favorable for La Nina to develop,” he added.
The 2009 season, which had only three hurricanes and was the quietest year since 1997 due in part to the weather anomaly El Nino, followed several years of unusually intense activity that was particularly disruptive to U.S. energy supplies.
Other U.S. weather forecasters, including private and university researchers, also are predicting an active hurricane season.
Private forecaster WSI and Colorado State University’s hurricane-forecasting team estimate the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season to produce at least eight hurricanes, four of them major, posing a heightened threat to the U.S. coastline. [ID:nN07108839] [ID:nN2099306]
CSU forecasters are expected to ramp up their prediction for the 2010 season in a report due out on June 2.
“The numbers are going to go up quite high,” William Gray, the hurricane forecast pioneer who founded CSU’s storm research team, said on Wednesday. “This looks like a hell of a year.”
Despite being off target in recent years, hurricane forecasts are closely watched by energy, insurance and commodities markets. Interest surged following damaging hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 that impacted Florida, the U.S. Gulf Coast and the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas fields.
A record four major hurricanes hit the United States in 2005, including Katrina, which killed around 1,500 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast and caused $80 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. (Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Kristen Hays; Editing by Walter Bagley and Jim Marshall)