HOUSTON (Reuters) - BP Plc moved ships and workers back to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill site as a storm eased on Saturday, and it could begin pumping mud into the blown-out well to try to plug the leak within three days.
As Tropical Depression Bonnie weakened in the Gulf, retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, head of the U.S. spill response, said the launch of a “static kill” operation to plug the well by pumping in heavy drilling mud and possibly cement could start in three to five days.
The rig drilling a relief well intended to permanently stop the leak was back in place at the spill site, though the storm will push back BP’s mid-August target date for completing it. Allen said work on the relief well could be delayed seven to nine days.
As much as half of the oil production in the Gulf had been suspended on Saturday as the storm approached.
Also on Saturday, a report suggested changes in BP’s management could be on the table for next week.
Citing unnamed sources, Sky News said BP directors were considering Chief Executive Tony Hayward’s future and may announce his departure Tuesday when the company reports second quarter results. Hayward has been under pressure to resign for perceived mishandling of BP’s early response to the spill.
A BP spokesman reiterated on Saturday that Hayward had the full support of the board and said the company did not comment on speculation.
Earlier this week, The Times newspaper reported Hayward would step down within the next 10 weeks. BP had also firmly rejected the Times story.
BP sealed the leak last week with a tight-fitting containment cap, choking off the flow of oil for the first time since an April 20 rig explosion killed 11 workers and sent crude spewing into the Gulf, soiling coastlines in five U.S. states and devastating tourism and fishery industries.
Allen said two ships had remained on site overnight to monitor the cap as other ships pulled out ahead of the storm, and the well retained its integrity.
As the storm threat eased, the independent administrator running a $20 billion fund set up by BP to compensate people for financial losses from the spill said the British energy giant was holding up payments to economic victims.
“I have a concern that BP is stalling claims. Yes, BP is stalling. I doubt they are stalling for money. It’s not that. I just don’t think they know the answers to the questions (by claimants),” Kenneth Feinberg told reporters in Alabama.
Thousands of businesses in Gulf coast states have been crippled by the oil spill, the worst in U.S. history. BP agreed to set up the $20 billion fund under pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama.
Work on the spill had been delayed by the approach of Tropical Depression Bonnie, but the National Hurricane Center said the storm was unlikely to strengthen and could degenerate into an area of low pressure later on Saturday.
Bonnie was downgraded from a tropical storm to a depression on Friday as it weakened on its trek across Florida into the Gulf. Bonnie could dissipate into a broad area of low pressure if its sustained winds fall another 5 miles per hour.
The storm was on course to make landfall between the Louisiana coast and Florida’s northwest Panhandle late on Saturday. The ruptured deep-sea well -- a mile under the ocean surface -- is located off the coast of Louisiana.
Despite causing delays, Bonnie could have some beneficial effect, Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told reporters.
“We expect that Bonnie should help dissipate and weather the oil at the surface,” Lubchenco said, adding it would help break tar patches and tar mats into smaller tar balls.
At a town hall meeting in southern Alabama, fishermen and other business owners told Feinberg of their frustration and anger at what they say is a slow and complex claims process that lacks transparency.
“After today there will be no more business as usual. I learned today the depth of frustration in people here on the coast,” Feinberg told the meeting.
BP’s spill is believed to have spewed more than five million barrels of oil into the Gulf and has complicated relations between close allies the United States and Britain.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a letter to a U.S. lawmaker the British energy company behaved in a “perfectly normal and legitimate” way in lobbying Britain in 2007 for a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.
In the letter to U.S. Senator John Kerry, Hague reiterated the British government’s position there is no evidence BP had any connection to Scottish authorities’ release last year of the man convicted of the 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
British documents show several discussions between BP and the British government in 2007, Hague said, when a prisoner transfer deal with Libya was being negotiated at the same time BP was pursuing an oil exploration deal with Libya.
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Kerry, has scheduled a July 29 hearing to examine whether BP’s oil interests influenced the 2009 release of the only person convicted in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland. The bombing killed 270 people, most of them Americans.
Additional reporting by Leigh Coleman and Rachelle Younglai in Alabama, Tom Brown in Miami; Writing by John Whitesides; editing by Todd Eastham