Rough seas forced pipeline and oil rig repair crews out of the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, delaying efforts to get the nation's oil and natural gas infrastructure on track and stem the rise in oil prices.
Hurricane Ivan ripped rigs off their bases and cracked sections in the extensive pipeline system that feeds the country much of its fuel. Broken pipelines caused at least four oil spills off the Louisiana coast and others further out in the gulf.
Slow progress in repairing Ivan's damage and world turmoil helped push crude oil prices briefly to $53 a barrel for the first time in Thursday trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Crude for November delivery closed Thursday at $52.67 a barrel, up 65 cents.
"The weather in the next couple of days will have an impact on the repair work," said Fred Palmer, a Shell Oil Co. spokesman.
As of Wednesday, nearly three weeks after Ivan first hit the Gulf Coast, the Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Coast Guard were still unsure how many oil spills were caused by cracked pipelines. Most of the pipelines in the hurricane path were shut in and being inspected.
At a Shell pipeline about 30 miles east of Venice, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, crews had gathered about 101,000 gallons of water polluted with oil. On Thursday, the Coast Guard said there were no sightings of oil in the water.
In the wake of the hurricane, oil production in the gulf is more than 3 million barrels per week below average, putting U.S. crude inventories at historically tight levels and contributing to the record price of oil.
"We all know there was certainly a lot of damage caused by Ivan to the pipeline system," said Caryl Fagot, a spokeswoman for the Minerals Management Service. "I do not have a good count as to how many leaks there have been."
Roland Guidry, the oil spill coordinator for Louisiana, said companies sometimes take a chance and leave oil and gas in their pipelines when a storm approaches.
Ivan also damaged and knocked over several oil rigs that dot parts of the gulf south of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, but there were no reports of oil leaks from them. When a hurricane comes, oil wells are secured.
Environmentalists said they are concerned about danger to the ecosystem from Ivan and future busy hurricane seasons.
"If this becomes the norm, more and more hurricanes, are they prepared? Have these rigs been hardened? Was it designed with a different reality in mind?" said Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace USA.
The Minerals Management Service has asked companies to inspect oil rigs and pipelines in the path of Ivan for damage. That work, much of it done underwater, may take months to finish.