After pounding Cuba, Hurricane Ike has entered the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 1 storm, and is expected to strengthen over the next couple of days into a major hurricane. The latest forecast track shows Ike aiming for the western Gulf and the Texas coast, taking a swipe at the offshore oil and gas infrastructure on the way, and making landfall early Saturday morning.
Too soon to say for sure — we haven’t yet seen any of the satellite images of the Gulf that were taken in the wake of Hurricane Gustav last week — but we haven’t heard of any offshore or onshore oil spills like those following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. One drill-rig operator, Transocean, reported some damage to three of their offshore drill rigs; one suffered damage to it’s mooring system, not good news considering that mooring systems were supposedly beefed up after Katrina blew a bunch of rigs around the Gulf. Let’s compare the two storms: Gustav was a Category 3 storm out in the northern Gulf, while Katrina was a monster Cat 5. Gustav hit the offshore oil fields with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph. Katrina moved through the OCS with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, gusting to 215 mph, with hurricane-force winds reaching 105 miles from the eye. Katrina generated 100-foot waves in the Gulf, high enough to batter the upper decks of major production platforms. At landfall, Gustav was a strong Cat 2 (110 mph) and Katrina was a strong Cat 3 (125 mph sustained, with gusts over 140 mph). Damage increases exponentially with increase in category – a Cat 4 could be 250 times as damaging as a at 1. Katrina was the 6th strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history.
Since the OCS platforms are designed to withstand at least a Cat 3 storm, they better not get beat up by the likes of Gustav. A Cat 4 or 5 storm is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Let’s hope Hurricane Ike doesn’t give us that test.
Hopefully not, but exactly three years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall after buzzing through the offshore oilfields in the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 5 storm (we documented some of the resulting offshore oil spills), and now it looks like Hurricane Gustav may be heading for the same trajectory. It just regained hurricane strength today, and forecasters have been predicting at least a Category 3 storm when it reaches the hot water of the central Gulf of Mexico.
We’re also hopeful that the mooring systems for floating drill rigs have been significantly strengthened. During Katrina, some of these huge rigs broke loose and got blown around the Gulf, dragging their anchors across the seafloor and tearing up the pipeline network. We think that caused many of the offshore slicks we observed on satellite imagery.
But most of the oil spilled by hurricanes Katrina and Rita happened onshore: over 9 million gallons, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, spilled from coastal refineries, storage tanks and pipelines – 6 major spills (>100,000 gallons), 5 medium spills, and over 5,000 minor spills. And those onshore facilities are just as vulnerable now as they were three years ago. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and say a prayer for the folks down along the Gulf coast. And keep an eye on Gustav. (What’s that you say? Hanna too?? You gotta be kidding me….)