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Gulf of Mexico oil platforms being evacuated at storm rolls in

BP Thunder Horse expansion
Thunder Horse

Tropical Storm Cristobal brought heavy rain to southern Mexico, and with a forecast that has it re-entering the Gulf of Mexico on Friday, oil-platform workers are already being evacuated.

The storm, carrying winds as high as 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour, will dump more “extreme rainfall” on far southern Mexico, extending to Guatemala and El Salvador, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. It’s then seen tracking north toward the U.S. coast between Texas and the Florida panhandle.

Energy prices are already reacting in the U.S., with Houston benchmark gasoline moving higher as traders secure supply ahead of the storm. Cristobal could push the average retail price of a gallon of gasoline over $2, according to AAA.

Storms in the Gulf are closely watched by the energy industry because offshore platforms account for 16% of U.S. crude oil production and 2.4% of natural gas output, according to the Energy Department. Additionally, more than 45% of U.S. refining capacity and 51% of gas-processing capacity is located on the coast.

Even a weak system can force evacuations and temporary shutdowns.

BP Plc said Wednesday it was removing offshore personnel and ramping down production at its Thunder Horse, Atlantis and Na Kika oil and gas platforms. It also said non-essential workers were being evacuated from the Mad Dog platform, though production remained unaffected.

Hurricane Chance

The forecast isn’t yet clear for the U.S. coast. There’s a chance Cristobal could reach hurricane strength, which entails winds of 74 mph or more, depending on how it fares after swinging back into the Gulf, said Paul Walker, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. Storms need warm ocean water to grow stronger, and weaken without it.

On its current track, Cristobal is forecast to re-emerge over the southern Gulf of Mexico on Friday and move northward over the weekend, according to the National Hurricane Center. There is a risk of storm surge, heavy rainfall and wind along portions of the Gulf Coast from Texas to the Florida panhandle.

The storm is expected to have top winds of 60 mph as it nears the U.S. late Sunday, early Monday, the center reported.

Cristobal is the third major storm to form in the Atlantic this year, marking the fastest start to hurricane season on record.

If it holds its strength and lands along the Gulf Coast, it will be the second storm to strike the U.S., even though the season will officially only be a week old. If it manages to reach hurricane status, it would be the earliest such a powerful storm hit the U.S., breaking the old mark set by Hurricane Alma on June 9, 1966, according to Accuweather.

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