Stormy conditions could hamper Gulf oil cleanup

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Tropical Storm Alex headed toward the Gulf of Mexico Sunday, but while it was not expected to hit the oil spill area, experts warned strong waves and winds could hamper cleanup efforts there.

With oil continually gushing into the fragile waters for the past 68 days, President Barack Obama's pointman on the disaster cautioned that volatile weather conditions could set back oil recovery operations for up to two weeks.

Meanwhile, Alex dumped heavy rains over the Yucatan peninsula before moving back into the Gulf later Sunday. Its forecast track meant BP could continue its process without disruption, for now.

"The storm is not an issue for the spill," said National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen.

Feltgen said forecasters did not expect Alex to head into the northeast Gulf, where the spill is located, "but that doesn't mean there won't be some wave impact."

Early Sunday, the storm packed sustained winds of 40 miles (65 kilometers) an hour, down from 60 miles (95 kilometers) an hour late Saturday, as it swirled 75 miles (120 kilometers) west of Chetumal, Mexico, the center said.

It was expected to weaken later Sunday, but regain some punch as it moves over the Gulf of Mexico by nightfall.

"We are very pleased that there is no weather impact right now," BP spokesman Ron Rybarczyk told AFP on Saturday.

But while the latest forecasts had BP breathing a sigh of relief, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen sounded the alarm about the potential for a devastating impact to efforts to contain and siphon off the oil.

"The weather is unpredictable, and we could have a sudden last-minute change," said Allen, telling reporters that oil recovery operations would have to be suspended for two weeks if Alex, the first named storm of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, were to hit the area.

Such a stoppage would exacerbate the spill that has defiled the Gulf Coast's once pristine shorelines, killed wildlife and put a big dent in the region's multi-billion-dollar fishing industry.

It would also mean the estimated 30,000 to 65,000 barrels of oil gushing from a ruptured wellhead down on the seafloor would be billowing crude and gas unchecked for days.

An estimated 1.9 to 3.5 million barrels (80 to 150 million gallons) have poured into the Gulf since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20.

Allen said vessels currently recuperating some of the oil and gas would need up to 120 hours to evacuate the site if weather conditions were deemed dire enough.

"If we get an indication that we have a chance for gale-force winds 120 hours before, we'll make the decision," he added before noting that "right now, we haven't met that threshold."

BP said it recovered 24,550 barrels of oil on Friday, a 3.5 percent increase from its Thursday total, and collected approximately 413,000 barrels since May.

Still, hundreds of demonstrators came to Manatee County, Florida, beaches Saturday to protest offshore oil drilling and support clean energy strategies advocated by President Obama.

About 350 people formed a human chain at Manatee Public Beach, according to local officials.

"We grew up coming to these beaches, and we want to make sure future generations -- like my daughter, here -- have a place like this to come to," said local resident Joshua Spaid.

BP's shares meanwhile hit a 13-year low in London trading after BP ramped up the costs of the spill so far to US$2.35 billion. The company's share values have been cut by more than half since the disaster that killed 11 workers and unleashed the worst oil spill in US history.

The British energy giant said its plans to drill through 2.5 miles (four kilometers) of rock were on track. No permanent solution to the spill is expected before the relief wells are due to be completed in August.

Heavy drilling fluids would then be pumped into the existing well to drown the oil flow, allowing it to be plugged for good with cement.

Vice President Joe Biden heads to the region on Tuesday and is due to visit the New Orleans-based National Incident Command Center before travelling to the Florida panhandle.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Carol Browner, who heads the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, will also visit.

In Toronto, Canada, Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron held their first face-to-face talks ahead of a G20 leaders' summit and agreed BP should "remain a strong and stable company," Downing Street said.

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