British, US leaders discuss oil spill

 US and British leaders sought to ease tensions amid sharpened rhetoric over the expanding oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as President Barack Obama readied to take matters into his own hands.

As political pressure mounts over his handling of the worst environmental disaster in US history, Obama will make his fourth visit to the disaster zone Monday with a two-day trip to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

The US Coast Guard meanwhile piled pressure on BP, giving the embattled oil giant 48 hours to deliver a better plan to contain oil from a stricken well gushing worse than once feared.

Obama -- who said last week he wants to know "whose ass to kick" over the catastrophe and fired a warning over shareholder payouts -- has summoned BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg to a meeting at the White House Wednesday.

The Transocean Discoverer Enterprise drill ship (with flare) collects oil from the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster
The Transocean Discoverer Enterprise drill ship (with flare) collects oil from the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster

British newspapers in turn have demanded that Prime Minister David Cameron -- who has defended the need for a "financially strong BP" -- stand up to Obama amid fears that his rhetoric was stoking an anti-British backlash.

In a 30-minute phone call Saturday, Obama assured Cameron that "frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity," a spokeswoman for the prime minister's Downing Street office said.

"The prime minister stressed the economic importance of BP to the UK, US and other countries," the Downing Street spokeswoman said. "The president made clear that he had no interest in undermining BP's value."

The White House said the pair "discussed the impact of the tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, reiterating that BP must do all it can to respond effectively to the situation."

In London, BP said in a statement that it appreciated the "leadership and constructive engagement of the US and UK governments."

Meanwhile the US Coast Guard ordered BP to improve its plans to contain the spill within 48 hours given new US government data this week that suggested the flow was as much as double previous estimates.

"Because those estimates have now been revised and estimate a substantially higher flow of oil from the Macado 252 well, it is clear that additional capacity is urgently needed," it said in a letter dated June 11 and released Saturday.

US government data on Thursday suggested the flow of the leak -- before a the pipe was cut open to put a containment system in place last week -- could be upwards of 40,000 barrels a day.

The containment system is only capturing around 28,000 barrels a day, and the company's operation to boost that rate to between 40,000 to 50,000 barrels is not currently scheduled to be ready until July.

There will be no permanent solution until the first of two relief wells is completed, in August at the earliest, allowing the leak to be plugged with cement.

"I am concerned that your current plans do not provide for maximum mobilization of resources to provide the needed collection capacity consistent with revised flow estimates," US Coast Guard Rear Admiral James Watson told BP in the letter.

"I am also concerned that your plan does not go far enough to mobilize redundant resources in the event of an equipment failure with one of the vessels or some other unforeseen problem," he added.

BP meanwhile has indicated it may finally bow to US pressure and suspend its dividend payment due July 27.

Suspending the dividend is "an option that's up for discussion" at a Monday board meeting, a BP spokesman told AFP.

Britain's Times newspaper said BP was preparing to place the second-quarter dividend money -- an expected 1.7 billion dollars -- in an escrow account in an attempt to ease political pressure on the firm.

Analysts estimate that BP's total liability for the environmental catastrophe, including the cleanup, compensation claims, government penalties, and a host of civil lawsuits, could reach 30 to 100 billion dollars.

The firm's share price has fallen more than 40 percent since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, prompting speculation about bankruptcy and a takeover bid.

As the massive cleanup continues and those who have lost their livelihoods struggle to get compensation, many here question whether BP - which earned 16.7 billion dollars last year - has deep enough pockets.

"There's no way BP can pay for all this," said Pete Thompson, an electrician and fisherman in the beach town of Grand Isle who had to ask for help buying groceries for the first time in his life on Thursday.

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