LAKEWOOD, NJ (Opis Energy Group) -- August 8, 2000 -- The hurricane season is off and running, with Hurricane Alberto charting a northwestward course across the Atlantic Ocean. While Alberto poses little threat to refiners in the Caribbean or the Gulf Coast, forecasters expect this hurricane season to be a lively one, with a storm cluster near the Yucatan Peninsula already shaping up as a possible threat.

Several meteorologists already have written off the possibility of Alberto hitting the Eastern seaboard or slamming into Caribbean islands. But Michael Schlacter, chief meteorologist with the consulting firm Weather 2000, notes that a trough of low pressure has failed to exert the northward pull on Alberto that many were predicting, making landfall more possible. "There are no definite signs at this point that the U.S. mainland is completely out of the woods. It's a dangerous situation and one worth monitoring," Schlacter said.

If Alberto's current west-northwest wobble shifts to a more pronounced westward course, any of a number of land areas could wind up in Alberto's path, including Bermuda, the Gulf Coast, Florida, the Carolinas and states even further up the Eastern seaboard. The fate of those regions also depends on the extent to which Alberto continues to intensify: With sustained winds of 80 mph, Alberto barely qualifies at present as a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir Simpson scale.

The bottom line, Schlacter said, is that the threat of landfall probably cannot be written off for at least another three days. And if Alberto continues to gather strength and ignore other low pressure troughs, the hurricane could merit intense monitoring for another seven to 10 days.

Overall, Schlacter anticipates an active hurricane season, which technically runs from June 1 to the end of November. Last season saw 16 tropical depressions (precursors to hurricanes), 12 of which became tropical storms and eight of which went on to became hurricanes. Schlacter expects to see a similar or even greater number of depressions this season.

But there is no direct correlation between storm activity and the number of hurricanes that actually make landfall. Hurricane Andrew made headlines in 1992, which from a meteorological viewpoint was a fairly quiet hurricane season. Meanwhile, 1995 was an active year but of little concern to the U.S. mainland.

But even relatively low grade storms like Alberto get plenty of scrutiny from refiners, offshore producers, and petrochemical companies. Virtually all of these firms pay an independent weather agency for information that may be delivered as often as every two hours.

The degree to which a hurricane plan is set in motion depends largely on these weather reports, but some aspects of hurricane planning are perennial. For example, coastal refiners and petrochemical companies carry significantly more inventory of both raw materials and some finished products during hurricane season, especially in above ground tanks.

This is called a "Hurricane Heel" and is added to what is termed a "tank heel," which is the minimum amount of product required to keep a tank in service. The added weight of the "Hurricane Heel" will keep tanks in place during severe flooding and wind. The extra raw material also serves to enable continued operations in the event of supply curtailments of crude or natural gas if offshore supply is affected.

Refiners may already be taking heed of a storm cluster near the Yucatan Peninsula, which Schlacter said could develop into the fourth tropical depression of the season within the next 24 hours. In fact, Schlacter likened the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to one big popcorn skillet where kernels of activity appear to be popping up right now.

- Brad Addington (

Copyright 2000, Oil Price Information Service.

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