A powerful hurricane was heading towards the US’s Gulf of Mexico coast on Wednesday, threatening high winds and an “unsurvivable” surge of seawater in the heartland of American oil refining, natural gas exports and petrochemicals production.
Laura is the second named storm to reach the Gulf this week, after Marco fizzled out off the coast of Louisiana. The National Weather Service warned Laura would be a “formidable hurricane,” making landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border after midnight on Thursday and pushing storm surges as far as 30 miles inland.
The centre of the storm was on track to pass between Port Arthur, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, two of the most important oil refinery hubs in the country. Refineries with a total capacity of 2.2m barrels per day of oil were closing plants or reducing volumes in advance of the storm, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics — about a quarter of the refining capacity on the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
The affected refineries included North America’s largest, Motiva Enterprises’ 630,000 b/d plant at Port Arthur, as well as Citgo’s 425,000 b/d refinery at Lake Charles, S&P said.
With the US exporting about 3m b/d of crude oil and 5m b/d of refined petroleum products this year, disruptions to Gulf infrastructure could affect global energy markets as well as US consumers.
The largest liquefied natural gas export terminal in the US, Cheniere Energy’s plant at Sabine Pass, Louisiana, has also suspended operations as employees were evacuated, a spokesman confirmed.
Tropical cyclones can cause severe damage and death on the Gulf coast. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly four feet of water while it lingered for days around Houston, flooding neighbourhoods and causing environmental damage as a chemical plant exploded.
Laura was expected to bring 120mph winds at the coast. The weather service warned of “unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves [that] will cause catastrophic damage”, with waters rising as high as 20ft above ground level.
The weather service predicted Laura would drop about 5 to 10 inches of rainfall before quickly moving inland. On Wednesday afternoon US gasoline futures dropped 3.6 per cent to $1.35 a gallon, partially reversing a rally from earlier in the week.
Compared to Harvey, “the recovery efforts from the damage that is certain to be done along the coast can begin much faster since this storm won’t stick around for long”, according to a note from the Arnold Companies, a motor fuels wholesaler.
Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official of Harris County, which surrounds Houston, told residents to prepare for the worst.
“Every storm is different,” she said at a news conference earlier in the week. “We urge folks not to use any prior storm as a template for what could or will happen.”