Reading the major financial newspapers over the last few weeks, you’d think petroleum markets are returning to normal. With the price of oil dipping to the low $60 range, traders told Bloomberg, “We should see prices continue to fall.”

But a closer look at the numbers reveals that not all is rosy for U.S. oil and gas. In fact, it looks as if the impact of twin-sister hurricanes Katrina and Rita may be the worst we’ve ever seen.

As the chart below, from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, shows the two storms have shut in a higher percentage of both oil and gas production from the Gulf of Mexico for a longer period of time than the last major hurricane, Ivan, in 2004.

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Following an initial spike of disruption, Ivan kept approximately 450,000 barrels/day of oil production and 2.5 billion cubic feet per day of gas output offline for just over 40 days. Shut-in following Katrina alone was significantly higher, with roughly 875,000 b/d oil and 3.5 Bcf/d gas output lost.

The overlaid effect of Rita is even worse. For one, the peak of maximum shut-in lasted much longer in Rita’s wake than for either Katrina or Ivan-nearly 10 days, as opposed to only 1 or 2 for the previous storms. But perhaps most notable is the slow pace of production recovery since. Following peak shut-ins for both Ivan and Katrina, 50% of shut-in production came back online within a week. At this writing-over 4 weeks following Rita’s landing onshore-only 30-40% of peak shut-in production has resumed.

One of the areas where the effects of this disruption are most apparent is in refinery throughput. As shown below, shipments of oil to refineries dropped over 4 million barrels per day in the face of facility closures-the largest monthly fall ever.

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Utilization rates tell the same story-at the end of September, the percentage of U.S. operating capacity being used to refine crude fell to 70%, more than 10% lower than ever observed during the last 15 years. Utilization has since recovered to 80%, but still remains at the low end of the historical range.

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Of course, these two factors may offset each other: with fewer refineries operating, demand for crude falls, taking some of the upward pressure off the oil price. This, combined with the U.S. government’s release of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, has likely contributed to the “calm after the storm” observed by Bloomberg.

But something eventually must give. If refineries recover, demand jumps, driving price higher-especially if a significant portion of Gulf oil production remains shut in. If refinery capacity remains reduced, stocks of gasoline, heating oil and other distillates will fall-bad news for end users such as homeowners, especially if natural gas supplies remain offline.

In fact, the Energy Information Agency (EIA) released its short-term outlook for energy, forecasting a 48% rise in energy costs for households that heat primarily with natural gas… an added cost of $350 this winter over last for homeowners. For households that rely on oil for their heating, the number comes in at $378, for an increase of 32%.

And those increases, explains the report, are only if the winter remains average… a longer or colder winter could drive up prices higher still.

With the majority of Gulf coast production still shut in and winter on the way, we suspect that higher energy prices will make front page news again before the year is out… and investors building portfolios of small energy companies actively growing reserves will make handsome returns.

[Ed. Note: To find energy companies whose stocks have an unusual habit of doubling in a short time, check out the Casey Energy Speculator].