HOUSTON (AP) – The punch of Hurricane Gustav appeared to fall softly Monday on the vast energy complex along the U.S. Gulf Coast, allowing oil market traders to focus not on storm damage, but on their growing anxiety over the state of the global economy.

Even as 110 mph winds raked refineries that line the coast and rushed over the deep-water rigs off the shores of Texas and Louisiana, the price for a barrel of oil plummeted by more than $4 a barrel to just above $111 because Gustav was weaker than expected.

Assuming no damage, it typically takes two to four days to restart a refinery, depending on its size. It can take a day or two to get offshore oil and natural-gas production going again. In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita knocked out the region’s offshore energy infrastructure for several weeks.

Transocean Inc., the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, said Monday afternoon it appeared its three moored, semisubmersible rigs in the Gulf remained anchored in position during the storm.

In recent days, oil companies shut down virtually all oil and natural gas production in the Gulf, and the storm’s threat halted about 15 percent of the nation’s refining capacity based in the region.

Any serious damage to oil platforms and rigs or prolonged refining disruptions could cause a spike in energy prices. Eqecat Inc., a risk modeling firm, projected Monday that Gustav could knock out capacity for about 5 percent of both oil and natural gas production for the next year.

However, one factor likely to mitigate any impact from the storm on prices is that many analysts believe the country’s appetite for fuel has been reduced by high prices and slower economic growth.

“U.S. demand has fallen dramatically,” said Linda Rafield, an analyst at Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos. “People look like they’re making what I’d call a long-term adjustment in consumption patterns.”

Gustav’s strength at landfall was nowhere near that of Katrina and Rita, a factor that oil analyst Jim Ritterbusch said likely contributed to falling oil prices.

Eating away at prices even before the storm entered the Gulf were suggestions that additional crude supplies would enter the market if Gustav caused severe damage to the Gulf’s oil facilities and hampered production.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency said Monday it was closely monitoring the storm and, “bearing in mind prevailing market conditions, … stands ready to act quickly and provide oil to the market as it did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.”

The IEA is the energy watchdog for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of the world’s most industrialized countries.

Many also were betting the U.S. government would release supplies from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve if supplies became tight.

“That’s helped put a fair amount of selling into this market, just the security of knowing we have alternative supplies available,” said Ritterbusch, president of energy consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called on President Bush to release oil from the strategic petroleum reserve, saying fuel shortages in his state could slow down rescue operations and overall storm recovery. Jindal said 85 percent of south Louisiana filling stations have no fuel.

“We think it’s necessary. We think it’s the right time to do this,” Jindal said at a news conference. “We need this fuel, we know we’re going to need this fuel by Thursday.”

Scott Angelle, Jindal’s natural resources secretary, said his office has submitted the paperwork to the federal Department of Energy to set up what would essentially be a loan of crude oil from the federal government to the oil companies. Angelle said Louisiana’s refineries now have a three-day supply of gasoline that could go out to gas stations.


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