NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Oil and gas companies evacuated hundreds of workers from production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and kept a close eye on refinery operations Saturday as Tropical Storm Lee advanced slowly across the region.
Lee had forced the evacuation of personnel from 237 oil and gas production platforms and 23 drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico as of Saturday afternoon, a federal agency said.
That meant about 38 percent of the total 617 manned platforms and 33 percent of the 70 drilling rigs operating in the Gulf were evacuated, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
About 60 percent of current oil production in the Gulf and almost 55 percent of natural gas production has been shut down, the agency said.
Energy companies say they can restart production quickly if rigs are not damaged by the storm.
Anything more than a brief interruption in supplies could affect the price of oil and gasoline. Pump prices, already near record highs for this time of year, may rise if supply lines are crimped. The national average for a gallon of regular on Saturday was $3.66, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service. That's up a penny from Friday and about five cents higher than a week ago.
Royal Dutch Shell PLC said Saturday that it had evacuated 858 non-essential personnel from its drilling platforms in the Gulf. It also said it was preparing to restaff its Perdido deep-water oil platform, about 200 miles off the Texas coast in the western Gulf of Mexico, as it waited for improved weather to send workers back to its central Gulf operations. Shell operates five other deepwater platforms in the Gulf.
Other companies said they were closely watching the storm's progress. There were no immediate reports of any impact on refinery operations.
ConocoPhillips said it had evacuated all personnel from its Magnolia platform in the Gulf and shut in or suspended production from the 5,000-barrels-a-day platform. Its Gulf Coast refineries continued to operate.
Alon USA Energy Inc.'s Krotz Springs, La., refinery was working under an elevated level of preparation, according to spokesman Blake Lewis. He said the company was encouraged by weather forecasts showing that the storm's impact might be less than expected on Friday, but was monitoring conditions closely.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Katia, has been downgraded to a tropical storm as it makes its way across the Atlantic. It's expected to strengthen to hurricane strength again and eventually move up the East Coast next week. The exact track of the storm is uncertain, but oil and gas companies will follow it closely. Several refineries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania closed temporarily to prevent damage from high winds and flooding as Hurricane Irene passed by last weekend.