The federal government is calling into port some of the boats involved in the BP oil spill cleanup amid storm predictions in the Gulf of Mexico.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the New Orleans-based second-in-command on the project, says his order Thursday afternoon was to ensure the safety of more than 40,000 people assisting in the oil spill response and recovery.
Besides the evacuation of certain specialized vessels, he has directed workers to remove oil-absorbent booms from along the coast to prevent damage to ecologicaly sensitive areas.
The Gulf seas grew choppy and U.S. officials evaluated the threat from a tropical storm forming in the Caribbean near the Bahamas. The storm is projected to swirl across the Gulf near the site where crews are working to plug the spill.
Tropical Depression 3, which is not expected to reach hurricane strength, formed on Thursday near the Bahamas and is likely to strengthen into a tropical storm by Thursday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The storm is forecast to make landfall in Louisiana or Texas in around four days.
It is projected to pass through the oil and gas production zone of the central Gulf, where BP is cleaning up its massive oil spill.
Both BP and Shell are evacuating nonessential personnel from offshore platforms in the Gulf. BP plans to leave its blown-out Gulf well capped through the storm, which could delay efforts to clean up the spill or definitively "kill" the well, officials said.
The U.S. portion of the Gulf of Mexico is the site of around 1.6 million barrels a day of crude output, or a third of domestic production, as well as more than 10 percent of natural gas, or around 6.6 billion cubic feet per day.
Although production remains unaffected, U.S. crude oil futures surged more than 3 percent to an 11-week high above $79 a barrel on Thursday partly due to risks a storm could hinder oil deliveries.
Some oil and gas producers in the Gulf of Mexico are monitoring the weather without ordering evacuations including ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Chevron, El Paso, Marathon, Eni SpA, and Anadarko.
But others, such as BP and Shell, have evacuation plans underway, and pipeline operator Enbridge said it plans to evacuate on Friday, up to 30 nonessential personnel offshore, from facilities connected to its regional offshore gas pipelines, which transport 2.3 billion cubic feet per day.
Operations were normal at the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the top destination for foreign supertankers unloading oil imports to the Gulf Coast refining region.
"Each company has its own set of guidelines and checklists and each responds accordingly, although certainly any interruption in activity has an impact on production, in this case, mostly in the entirety of the north-central and northwestern Gulf," said Kyle Tupin, senior meteorologist with ImpactWeather.
"There's a chance the storm could become a hurricane but at this time we are forecasting tropical storm-force winds throughout the duration of its track and into landfall."