Tropical Storm Alex forecast to strengthen; could push oil toward Gulf Coast
Tropical Storm Alex may become a major hurricane as it churns toward the Texas-Mexico border forcing the evacuation of some rigs and sending swells at the oil slick created by the U.S.’s worst spill.
The storm may grow into at least a Category 3 system, with minimum winds of 111 mph (178 kph), before making landfall early July 1, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
The system, with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph, was about 85 miles west of Campeche in Mexico and moving north- northwest at 7 mph, the agency said in an advisory posted on its website just before 11 a.m. Miami time. It is expected to reach hurricane strength of 74 mph tomorrow.
“I expect Alex to grow and intensify significantly over the next 72 hours,” said Jim Rouiller, senior energy meteorologist for Planalytics Inc., a weather adviser to energy interests. “It remains entirely possible that Alex could grow into a Category 2 or low-end Category 3 on Wednesday or Thursday.”
The U.S. and Mexican governments have issued hurricane watches from just south of Baffin Bay in Texas to La Cruz, Mexico, according to the hurricane center. A watch means storm conditions may develop with 48 hours.
The storm’s track keeps it away from a direct hit on the slick of crude oil pouring from a BP Plc rig. However, large ocean swells are already making their way to the site, said Brian LaMarre, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Slidell, Louisiana.
Those waves may push the oil into the Gulf Coast, said Joe Bastardi, chief hurricane forecaster at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pa.
“A hurricane is like a giant plunger and the waves radiate out,” Bastardi said. “Some big swells are coming out and pushing oil to the coast and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it.”
The Gulf of Mexico measures about 500 miles from north to south between the Mississippi River delta and the Yucatan, and about 1,000 miles west to east, according to the website of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation in Corpus Christi, Texas.
It is home to about 30 percent of U.S. oil and 12 percent of its natural gas production. It also has seven of the 10 busiest U.S. ports, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Petroleos Mexicanos, the state-owned company also known as Pemex, closed oil export terminals Cayo Arcas and Dos Bocas as Alex bore down on the area. Pemex, Latin America’s largest oil producer, extracts about 73 percent of its oil from Gulf fields, producing 2.593 million barrels a day in May.
Mexico is the second-largest crude provider to the U.S. after Canada. Pemex is operating all of its rigs and said they will remain open as the storm passes.
BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc, the biggest oil producers in the Gulf, are evacuating crews from five offshore platforms in the western Gulf as a safety precaution.
The Gulf Coast region is also home to about half of U.S. refining capacity, according to the Energy Department.
“It can take two or three days to safely shut a refinery in advance of a storm,” said Bill Day, a spokesman for Valero Energy Corp., which operates five refineries in Texas and one in Louisiana. “You’re not just flipping a switch and walking away. You have to be prepared.”
Gulf Coast refiners in August and September 2008 lost about 20 percent of daily production capacity due to hurricanes Ike and Gustav.
Bastardi said the next two days will be critical in determining where Alex will make landfall.
“It is going to be like a fork in the road,” he said. “If it misses the fork it will go into Mexico; if it makes it, it will go north,” Bastardi said.
Rouiller said some models suggest landfall from anywhere on the Texas coast just south of Galveston to Padre Island.
“I would suggest preparing for the worst case scenario from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, Texas,” Rouiller said.