By Gary McWilliams
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Royal Dutch Shell Plc <RDSa.L> halted some oil production and began evacuating workers from a U.S. Gulf of Mexico platform, the company said on Saturday, as a new tropical storm flared.
Beta, the 23rd named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, formed in the Bay of Campeche and was forecast to gradually strengthen and soak the Texas coast all week, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm swirled even as oil and gas producers were restarting their offshore operations. Some 17% of U.S. Gulf of Mexico offshore oil production and nearly 13% of natural gas output was offline on Saturday from Hurricane Sally's waves and winds.
The NHC reduced its maximum wind forecast to 75 miles per hour (120 kph), just above tropical storm intensity. Drier air aloft will limit Beta's strength and may prevent it from becoming a hurricane, the NHC said in a Saturday update.
Shell said it was removing non-essential employees from its Perdido platform in the western Gulf of Mexico and securing nearby drilling rigs. Occidental Petroleum Corp <OXY.N>, which operates in the same area, said it also began implementing storm procedures.
BP <BP.L>, Hess Corp. <HES.N> and Murphy Oil Corp. <MUR.N> were monitoring conditions on Saturday, spokespeople for the companies said. Beta churned about 245 miles (395 km) south of Lake Charles, Louisiana, with 60 mph winds at 1 p.m. CDT (1800 GMT), the NHC said. It issued a hurricane watch for most of the Texas coast and warned of up to 10 inches (25 cm) of rain along the northwest Gulf coast from the slow moving storm.
If Beta reaches hurricane strength, with maximum winds greater than 74 mph on the Saffir-Simpson scale, it would be the third Gulf of Mexico hurricane in less than a month. Hurricane Sally slammed into Alabama on Wednesday with winds of up to 105 mph (170 kph) and Laura hit southwest Louisiana with 150 mph winds.
There were 24 platforms awaiting the return of work crews on Saturday, down from 149 earlier in the week. Some 323,000 barrels of oil and 339 million cubic feet of natural gas output remained offline by Gulf of Mexico producers that had shut output ahead of Hurricane Sally, the U.S. Department of Interior said.
The U.S. Gulf of Mexico offshore oil production accounts for 17% of U.S. crude oil production and 5% of U.S. natural gas production.
(Reporting by Gary McWilliams and Erwin Seba; Editing by William Mallard, Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio)