MEXICO CITY - Hurricane Alex churned slowly through Gulf waters on Wednesday, growing stronger and likely to come ashore later in the day but sparing Mexican oil rigs and U.S. oil fields to the relief of crude markets.
Alex's rough seas and rain still hampered efforts to control damage left from the spill from the major leak at a BP Plc facility south of Louisiana. Some energy companies also shut down some oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico and evacuated personnel as a precaution.
The first named storm of the Atlantic season had the potential to grow into a Category 2 storm on Wednesday. It remained on a steady course far to the southwest of major U.S. offshore facilities.
Milenio Television showed images of dark skies, heavy rain and a very strong surf smashing against beach resorts in the coast of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where Alex was expected to land later on Wednesday, as the wind bent tall palm trees to 45 degrees.
Marco Antonio Martinez of the state's civil protection told Milenio there were no evacuations but authorities remained on high alert.
While oil prices have fallen since Friday as Alex appeared to pose little threat to the U.S. Gulf oil patch, energy companies still shut down production of nearly 400,000 barrels per day of oil, about a quarter of the Gulf's output, as a precaution, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement said on Tuesday.
They have also shut off 600 million cubic feet of gas output, some 9.4 percent of the Gulf's total."
In Mexico, state-owned oil giant Pemex Wednesday reopened Cayo Arcas and Dos Bocas, two of its key terminals in the Gulf of Mexico that ship about 80 percent of the country's export crude. The ports had been closed since Sunday. Pemex's offshore platforms operated normally despite the threat of the storm.
Forecasters expected Alex to make land on Wednesday night, bringing 6 to 12 inches of rain to northeastern Mexico and southern Texas as well as dangerous storm surges along the coast.
Alex had winds of 80 miles per hour and was located about 190 miles southeast of Brownsville, Texas. It was moving northwest at 7 mph, the Miami-based center said.
Alex could begin weaken after its center crosses the coastline, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Waves as high as 12 feet were expected to delay for several days BP's plans to hook up another system to capture much more oil from its blown-out oil facility.
Controlled burns of crude on the oil's surface, flights spraying dispersant chemicals and booming operations were all halted on Tuesday, officials said.
The storm was not expected to interrupt BP's plans to drill a pair of relief wells intended to plug the leak by August.
Houston Ship Channel traffic was halted due to rough seas from Alex, the U.S. Coast Guard said on Wednesday. Tankers on the channel provide crude oil to eight refineries in Houston and Texas City that account for more than 10 percent of U.S. refining capacity.
A hurricane warning was issued for the coast of Texas south of Baffin Bay down to the mouth of the Rio Grande, and along the coast of Mexico La Cruz. A tropical storm warning extended down to Cabo Rojo, just south of the port city of Tampico.
Flooding from the storm's surge and heavy rain was seen as the major threat to communities in South Texas.
Texas Governor Rick Perry authorized the activation of up to 2,500 state military personnel to assist with storm preparation and response, while transportation officials in the Rio Grande Valley monitored evacuation routes. Officials also readied shelters and mobile feeding canteens and kitchens.
Officials in South Texas readied rescue vehicles, shelters in San Antonio and Laredo and rushed supplies to the Rio Grande Valley. Bob Pinkerton, mayor of South Padre Island, a coastal community where the entire economy rests on tourism, urged residents and visitors to evacuate.
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov 30 and meteorologists predict an active storm season. Alex is the first June storm in fifteen years to gain hurricane strength in the Atlantic.
(Reporting by Cyntia Barrera and Patrick Rucker in Mexico City, additional reporting by Anna Cyntia Barrera Diaz; Editing by Bill Trott)
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