BP Plc will begin a new and risky plan to funnel oil from its blown-out Gulf of Mexico well to the surface on Tuesday, the top U.S. official overseeing the cleanup effort said.
Remote robots will begin cutting through the top of the well's lower marine riser package, and it could take up to 72 hours to get the containment device operational, said Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, on a conference call with reporters.
U.S. President Barack Obama, struggling to get on top of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, vowed an overhaul of U.S. laws and regulations needed to prevent a repeat of the April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 people and triggered the spill.
And after meeting co-chairs of a commission that will investigate the accident, Obama raised the prospect of criminal prosecutions as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited the region, as BP began a new strategy to end the six-week-old drama.
"If our laws were broken leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region," Obama said.
The oil giant's shares fell by as much as 17 percent during London on Tuesday before ending down 13 percent, at 430 pence. The shares were hit hard by weekend news that its latest attempt to plug its blown-out seabed well had not worked, sparking fears oil could leak into the Gulf until August.
The shares have lost more than a third of their value, or about 46 billion pounds ($67 billion), since the leak started. The cost of dealing with the crisis now totals $990 million, and is rising.investment, with one issuing a sell order and saying he thinks the company will be broken by the crisis.
A poll by CNBC, a Wall Street news channel watched by many savvy U.S. investors, said that 63 percent of those surveyed say BP will be fine in a year, while 25 percent believe the company will be under bankruptcy protection and 12 percent thought BP would go under.
In its next attempt to stop the mile-deep gusher, BP's next plan will use a dome to funnel oil to a tanker on the surface. Robotic equipment will use giant shears and a diamond saw to cut a pipe 35 feet (11 meters) above the wellhead that will allow BP to sit the dome on top of it.
"We are intent on minimizing the flow of the oil into the Gulf and we've begun a series of operations to ensure just that," BP managing director Bob Dudley told CNN.
If this attempt fails, it is possible that up to 19,000 barrels of oil a day (3 million litres) will leak into the Gulf until relief wells, due in August, are completed.
White House advisor Carol Browner described the leak will increase in rate as a "deeply, deeply troubling" possibility.
The leak is a financial and public relations nightmare for BP and its problems are just beginning.
Holder, the U.S. attorney general, made his first visit to view the damage ahead of what experts have said will be a criminal probe into the explosion and oil spill that could produce record fines.
Joined by top department officials, Holder was to meet state and federal prosecutors from Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.
Records to be retained
The Justice Department has been silent so far on an investigation but sent the companies involved letters demanding they preserve their records, often a first step in a criminal probe.
Obama, who is fighting accusations that he has not reacted swiftly enough to a disaster that threatens Louisiana's multibillion dollar seafood industry, sat down with the heads of a commission looking into the leak, former Florida Senator Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator William Reilly.
"If the laws on our books are insufficient to prevent such a spill, the laws must change. If oversight was inadequate to enforce these laws, oversight has to be reformed," Obama said.
The commission will be similar to those that examined two previous unprecedented U.S. catastrophes -- the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979.
The fate of BP's shares weighed on investors but was of little concern to residents of Louisiana's coast half a world away, who have suffered crippling losses because of the closure of some Gulf waters to fishing.
"I really don't care much about it (the share price)," said Kimberly Mertz, who works at a marina in rural Venice, Louisiana. "We want to get everything cleaned up."
The slick has spread over 100 miles (160 km) of Louisiana's coast but Mississippi and Alabama have escaped so far with only scattered tar balls and oil debris reaching its coasts.
That could change as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said moderate southerly and southwesterly winds this week may start moving oil closer to the Mississippi and Alabama coasts.
The forecast was a reminder that oil from the unchecked spill, broken up and carried by winds and ocean currents, could threaten tourism mecca Florida, as well as Cuba and Mexico.
Raising the stakes still further, Tuesday is the official start of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, which forecasters predict may be the most intense since 2005.
That year Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region and disrupted offshore oil and gas output. Experts fear a big storm could drive more oil ashore and force BP and the U.S. government to suspend cleanup efforts.
ReutersLast Mod: 01 Haziran 2010, 23:56