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Stronger Hurricane Laura aims at heart of U.S. oil refining industry

HOUSTON, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Hurricane Laura strengthened on Wednesday as it churned over evacuated oil-production platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and took aim at the energy industry’s refining hub along the Texas/Louisiana coast.

The storm is forecast to become a Category 4 hurricane with catastrophic, 130 mile (209 km) per hour winds that will drive ocean waters up to 30 miles inland, forecasters said.

A half a million people in the two states fled the storm, clogging highways out of the area. Laura is forecast to dissipate quickly after landfall either late Wednesday or early Thursday, with the greatest danger more from wind and storm surges than rain.

Nine oil-processing plants that convert nearly 2.9 million barrels per day of oil into fuel, and account for about 15% of U.S. processing were shutting down. Chevron Corp and Motiva Enterprises halted two oil refineries in the area on Wednesday.

The storm track will bring devastating winds and a storm surge to an area spanning Port Arthur, Texas, to Lake Charles, Louisiana, forecasters said, an area with a half-dozen large oil refineries and natural-gas processing plants.

The most powerful storm to hit the area since Hurricane Rita in 2005 could deliver an up to 15-foot (4.6-m) storm surge to the plants along the Texas/Louisiana border, the National Hurricane Center said.

Coastal area will see large and destructive waves accompanied by a storm surge that “could penetrate up to 30 miles inland from the immediate coastline,” according to NHC forecaster Daniel Brown.

Oil producers on Tuesday had evacuated 310 offshore oil facilities and shut 1.56 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude output, 84% of Gulf of Mexico’s offshore production.

As the storm prepared to strike the Texas/Louisiana border, refiners further west were expecting to ride it out. Marathon Petroleum Corp plans normal production at its large refinery in Texas City, according to people familiar with the matter. Marathon did not have an immediate response.

Reporting by Erwin Seba; writing by Gary McWilliams Editing by Marguerita Choy

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