Stronger Hurricane Laura races toward heart of U.S. oil refining industry

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Laura strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane on Wednesday as it raced over evacuated oil-production platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and took aim at the energy industry’s refining hub along the Texas/Louisiana coast.

The fast-moving storm is forecast to bring heavy rains and catastrophic, 145 mile-per-hour (230 kph) winds that will drive ocean waters up to 30 miles (48 km) inland, forecasters said.

A half a million people in the two states fled the storm, clogging highways and filled hotels in a rush to avoid the storm and shelters.

Landfall is expected at about midnight (0500 GMT Thursday) and could push an “unsurvivable” 20-foot (6-m) wall of water against the coast, the National Hurricane Center warned.

The storm resembles 2005’s Hurricane Rita, which caused more than $18 billion in damages and killed more than 120 people, many during a hurried Texas evacuation.

“The storm surge is going to be catastrophic, easily a 10- to 15-foot (3-4.6 m) surge on top of five to 10 inches (13-25 cm) of rain,” near the storm’s center, said Jim Foerster, chief meteorologist at DTN, an energy, agriculture and weather data provider.

Laura’s projected path spares Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city and has allowed some of its oil refineries to keep running. But its path will bring a deadly combination of fierce winds, blinding rainfall and storm surge to the Texas/Louisiana state line that was severely affected by Hurricane Harvey’s floods three years ago.

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The storm track stretches from Port Arthur, Texas, to Lake Charles, Louisiana, an area with a half-dozen large oil refineries and natural-gas processing plants. Cheniere Energy Inc (LNG.A), the top exporter of U.S. liquefied natural gas, evacuated a plant near the storm’s path, and Cameron LNG also closed its Louisiana LNG export plant.

Lake Charles could see an at six to nine foot wall of water, Foerster said.

The ports of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Houston, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, Texas, closed to vessel traffic on Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard said

Six oil-processing plants that convert nearly 2.33 million barrels per day of oil into fuel, and account for about 12% of U.S. processing were shut down on Wednesday.

Chevron Corp (CVX.N), Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N), Valero Energy (VLO.N), Total (TOTF.PA) and Motiva Enterprises [MOTIV.UL] had halted operations at oil refineries in the area on Wednesday.

Oil producers on Wednesday had evacuated 310 offshore oil facilities and shut 84%, or 1.56 million bpd, of U.S. Gulf of Mexico crude output, and 61% of the region’s offshore natural gas production.

As the storm prepared to strike the Texas/Louisiana border, refiners closer to Houston were expecting to ride it out.

Marathon Petroleum Corp (MPC.N)’s Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, LyondellBasell (LYB.N)’s Houston facility and Exxon’s Baytown refinery were continuing operations, according to people familiar with the matter.

Marathon and LyondellBasell did not have immediate responses. Exxon’s Baytown plant is running but was taking precautions in event conditions worsen, a spokesman said.

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