Heavy damage by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita mean it probably will take months to return offshore natural gas production to normal levels.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Tuesday that while the production shortfall will mean high prices for natural gas this winter, there should be no widespread shortages of the fuel. The Gulf Coast produces about one-fifth of the natural gas used by industry and to heat homes, especially in the country's midsection.
Noting that a year ago Gulf oil and gas producers recovered fairly fast from Hurricane Ivan, Norton said at a news conference, "We are not seeing this kind of quick recovery this time around." It may take into next year for some of the heavily damaged oil and gas platforms to be repaired, she said.
The Interior Department said only 10 percent of the Gulf region's offshore oil production and 28 percent of the gas production has been brought back on line. While most drilling rigs and platforms survived the storm, Norton said repairs "clearly will be in the billions of dollars."
Johnnie Burton, director of the department's Minerals Management Service, said it appears the two hurricanes did less damage to underwater gas pipelines than Hurricane Ivan, but a clear assessment of pipeline damage has not yet been made.
"It's primarily a question of how fast (processing) facilities get back on line," Norton told reporters as she gave an update on hurricane damage to offshore energy facilities.
Hurricane Katrina, because of strong storm surges, heavily damaged a number of gas processing plants in the New Orleans area. Rita had less of a surge, but did damaged some onshore facilities in Texas.
On a positive note, Norton said that despite the twin hurricanes' widespread damage and heavy winds that gusted at times to 200 mph over the Gulf, there was no loss of life among some 25,000 offshore oil and gas industry workers and no significant oil spill from underwater pipelines or any of the 3,050 drilling platforms and rigs.
The platforms were shut off in advance and the shut-off valves, located on the sea floor, prevented any spills, said Norton.
But Norton said the storm exposed a possible design problem in the mooring of some drilling rigs. She said the anchors at 19 drilling rigs tore from their mooring when they should have held, causing them to be whipped across the water by the high winds. In one case, such a rig may have collided with a major, 28,000-barrel-a-day drilling platform, destroying it.
The platform, owned by Chevron, was the only large one in the Gulf built after 1988 that was destroyed. Four other major platforms were heavily damaged, Norton said. She said the department plans to meet with industry next month to discuss improvements in rig mooring.
Norton said the storm destroyed 108 older, small drilling rigs that were built before tougher construction standards were put into effect in 1988. Those rigs, which account for about 1.5 percent of the Gulf production, will likely not be rebuilt, she said.