(Updates with federal tropical-storm-warning information in fourth paragraph and oil and gas shut-in data in fifth paragraph)
--Tropical storm Debby moving slowly through Gulf
--Forecasters says storm could go in several directions
--Wind and rain forcing oil and gas production cuts
By Ben Lefebvre
Tropical Storm Debby hunkered down in the central Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, forcing oil and gas companies to cut production while forecasters debated which way the system would go next.
Debby, the fourth named storm this year, was moving at six miles an hour as of 11 a.m. EDT Sunday, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center said. As it loitered, the storm piled heavy rains and winds of up to 60 miles an hour on to oil and gas platforms in the Gulf, forcing evacuations.
Because the storm is on the cusp of two major pressure fronts--one in the east and one from the Great Plains area--forecast models were split as to whether it would head west toward Texas or plow east into Florida, said Todd Kimberlain, hurricane forecaster at the National Hurricane Center.
"It will be in the north-central Gulf for the next couple of days, not moving initially but making a more decisive course later," Mr. Kimberlain said. The center issued a tropical-storm warning for parts of the coastline along Louisiana and the Mississippi-Alabama border.
Oil and gas producers in the Gulf of Mexico since Saturday have shut in production and started using helicopters to bring workers from some of the nearly 600 production platforms dotting the Gulf to safety. About 23% of gas and oil production in the Gulf had been shut in as of Sunday, according to the latest bulletin from the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Gulf of Mexico federal offshore production accounts for 29% of oil and 12% of gas production in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
BP PLC (BP, BP.LN), by far the largest oil and gas producer in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico, said its oil and gas production would be completely shut in by the middle of Sunday. The London-based company operates four of the seven largest oil and gas platforms in the Gulf and produced a combined 410,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day in 2010.
"The storm's slow movement makes it difficult to forecast its track accurately," BP spokesman Brett Clanton said.
Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDSA.LN, RDSA), Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (APC) and BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP, BLT.LN) also shut in production as Debby approached, while ConocoPhillips (COP), Chevron Corp. (CVX) and others have been evacuating nonessential personnel. The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port has stopped offloading oil from tankers because of the storm but still has supply crude to send to customers, a spokeswoman said.
Even as Debby bore down operations in the Gulf, the storm likely would prop up oil and gas prices at least during the start of the week, said Dominick Chirichella, an analyst at energy marketing consulting firm Energy Management Institute. Oil futures for August delivery closed Friday at $79.76 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, down 5.4% for the week and off nearly 25% since May 1 as gloomy economic news emanated from the U.S. and Europe.
"Right now Debby is not likely to be a direct hit, but enough to slow things down," Mr. Chirichella said.
Write to Ben Lefebvre at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 24, 2012 14:26 ET (18:26 GMT)
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