October 17, 2005

Forecast models widely disagree on Wilma’s track

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Wilma unexpectedly
formed in the western Caribbean early Monday and triggered some
nervous buying by energy traders, but weather models showed
widely divergent paths for the storm.

Oil traders, already worried about the long-term damage
done to oil and natural gas facilities by hurricanes Katrina
and Rita in August and September, promptly bid up energy prices
amid fears of a repeat.

But computer weather models forecasting the track of the
storm varied widely in their projected paths.

While the U.S. National Hurricane Center showed the storm
clipping the eastern tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on
Friday, then moving into the central Gulf of Mexico on
Saturday, other weather models disagreed.

The United Kingdom model showed Wilma moving west, crossing
the central Yucatan Peninsula and heading toward the Mexican
coast, while several other models showed the storm moving in a
more northerly direction, crossing the western tip of Cuba,
then hooking northeast toward Florida.

"I don't see this storm going into the north-central or
northwest Gulf because that area should be protected by the
westerly winds aloft. It looks like it's going to Central
America or southern Mexico," said Charlie Notis at Freese-Notis
Weather, a private weather forecasting firm based in Iowa.

But Notis also said prevailing winds moving from west to
east could force the storm more north and east toward Florida.

Energy traders have been spooked this year by any news of
tropical activity in the Gulf of Mexico, an area that produces
some 20 percent to 25 percent of the nation's oil and natgas
supplies and was severely battered by three powerful storms
over the last 12 months.

At the peak, the one-two punch from the two recent storms
completely shut in offshore crude oil production and trimmed
some 80 percent from daily natgas output, leaving offshore
producers again struggling to get volumes back to normal.

With about 60 percent of Gulf oil and gas production still
curtailed because of the storm damage done weeks ago, concerns
have been growing about having enough heating oil and natural
gas to meet peak winter demand.

The slow pace of recovery has helped keep energy prices
near record levels.

A government report on Friday again showed only a modest
improvement in offshore supplies.

Data from the U.S. Minerals Management Service showed that
Gulf natgas production cuts on Friday fell slightly to 5.65 bcf
per day, still 56 percent of the total produced daily from
offshore wells.

More than 1 million barrels of crude oil output was still
shut in, or about 67 percent of daily flows, MMS said.

Tropical Storm Wilma, the Atlantic hurricane season's 21st
named storm, was located about 220 miles south-southeast of
Grand Cayman, moving southwest at 5 miles per hour with maximum
sustained winds of about 45 mph.

NHC said Wilma could strengthen into a hurricane by

Some meteorologists were still taking a wait-and-see stance
on Wilma.

"The odds are good that Wilma will become a hurricane, but
talking about U.S. landfall now should be off the table," said
Michael Schlacter at Weather 2000, a private weather
forecasting firm in New York.