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Active 2021 hurricane forecast a familiar threat to US oil, gas, power industries

Highlights

17 storms, 8 hurricanes, 4 major hurricanes forecast

Elevated landfall probabilities near Houston, New Orleans

11 named storms entered Gulf of Mexico in 2020

Houston — The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season will be another busy one, with an elevated probability for major hurricanes to make landfall along the continental US coastline, according to an early forecast from Colorado State University.

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Tropical Weather and Climate researchers at CSU are predicting 17 named storms, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes in the Atlantic this year. During the baseline comparison period from 1981 to 2010, the Atlantic witnessed an average of 12.1 named storms, 6.4 hurricanes and 2.7 major hurricanes.

The CSU forecast precedes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's forecast, which is scheduled for release in late May.

On April 9, the NOAA said it was updating its own 30-year comparison period to 1991-2020, reflecting higher storm activity compared to the previous 1981-2010 period. The latest 30-year comparison period now includes 14 named storms and seven hurricanes. The number of major hurricanes remains unchanged at three.

Shut-ins, facility damage

For the US oil and gas industry, the upcoming hurricane season will again pose a significant potential threat to both offshore platforms and onshore infrastructure including refineries, gas processing and petrochemical plants, and crude, refined product and LNG export facilities.

According to CSU researchers, counties surrounding the Houston metro area and parishes surrounding the New Orleans metro are among the most vulnerable to storms making landfall in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, potentially posing an outsized threat to some of the region's mostly densely concentrated oil and gas infrastructure.

During the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, 11 named stormed entered the US Gulf of Mexico, including four hurricanes and three major hurricanes. While Hurricane Laura was the single most disruptive storm, October was the most disruptive month of the season with four named storms entering the Gulf.

During category 4 Hurricane Laura, offshore producers shut over 84% of Gulf oil production, equivalent to about 1.559 million b/d, and 60% of natural gas production, equal to over 1.6 Bcf/d. Along the Gulf Coast, LNG and product-export operations were temporarily halted and more than 2.3 million b/d in refining capacity was taken offline.

While five of the shuttered refining facilities were quickly restored to service, the Citgo and Phillips 66 refineries in Lake Charles, Louisiana, suffered more prolonged disruptions. Petrochemical operators in southwest Louisiana met a similar fate. West Lake Chemical was among those damaged, with some of its units remaining offline for upwards of six weeks.

Later in the season, October became the most disruptive month with hurricanes Delta and Zeta jointly curtailing nearly 600,000 b/d. According to S&P Global Platts Analytics analyst Sami Yahya, "The single-day peak was a little under 1.7 million b/d."

By October 30, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season had curtailed nearly 40 million barrels of US Gulf crude, or around 130,000 b/d. The unusually severe 2020 hurricanes were also a factor in Gulf of Mexico production declines in the year's second half. The Gulf's Q2 2020 production of 1.69 million b/d dropped to 1.45 million in Q3 and 1.52 million in Q4, before rising to a more-normal 1.72 million b/d in Q1 2021.

Power outages

Further inland, the impact from recent hurricanes has been borne mostly by power generators, utilities and their customers, which typically face widespread outages, demand destruction and lower power prices.

In the wake of Hurricane Laura, nearly 840,000 utility customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas lost power. While Laura was by far the most disruptive storm of the 2020 season, the US power industry faced significant disruptions during various storms throughout the season.

During Hurricane Sally, more than 540,000 electricity customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi lost power. Hurricane Delta, a major category 4 storm, cut power to an estimated 575,000 homes in the wake of its path through Louisiana and northern Mississippi. Hurricane Zeta, which struck late in the season on October 29, cut power to some 1.2 million customers of Southern Company utilities in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.