HOUSTON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Energy giant BP Plc said on Tuesday it was capturing more oil from its ruptured Gulf of Mexico well while U.S. scientists tried to figure out just how much crude was still pouring out.
The London-based company’s share price closed down 5 percent in London after U.S. President Barack Obama said he wanted to know “whose ass to kick” over the massive spill.
The on-going disaster remains at the top of Obama’s crowded domestic agenda, a point underscored by his strong comments and Tuesday’s announcement that he will head back to the Gulf coast next week to inspect efforts to contain the spill.
Obama will visit Mississippi, Alabama and Florida during a two-day trip beginning on Monday, the White House said.
BP already faces a criminal investigation and lawsuits over the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and triggered the 50-day-old oil spill, the worst in U.S. history.
Efforts to contain the mess forged ahead.
BP said on Tuesday it had collected 14,800 barrels of oil from the leaking well on Monday, 33 percent higher than the amount collected on Sunday and the highest capture rate since it installed a new system last week to contain the spill.
BP later said it collected 7,850 barrels of oil in the 12-hour stretch ended at noon CDT (1700 GMT) on Tuesday. That brought the total collected since the cap was installed to 51,364 barrels.
Hoping to calm rising passions, BP said it would donate revenues from the oil it is recovering to restore Gulf wildlife habitats. The company had already committed itself to cleaning up after the disaster.
The political heat remains intense as the disaster spills over into energy policy in Washington.
The Interior Department issued new safety and environmental requirements for companies that want to drill in shallow waters. They have until June 28 to show they have met the new requirements or face being shut down.
BP chief executive Tony Hayward was called to testify, for the first time, at a congressional hearing on June 17 that will focus on the company’s role in the rig explosion and subsequent spill. BP said he would attend.
Another congressional committee investigating the spill sent a letter to rig operator Transocean that questioned whether the company had enough people working on Deepwater Horizon at the time of the explosion.
After the spill, the Obama administration imposed a six-month moratorium on new drilling permits for exploration and development wells in waters deeper than 500 feet. U.S. officials also refused to approve new drilling in shallow waters until new rules were issued.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the top U.S. official overseeing the cleanup effort, said on Monday neither BP nor the government knew just how much oil was gushing out of the well. “That’s the big unknown right now,” he said.
BP has given conservative estimates of the oil flow that have been ridiculed by scientists and U.S. lawmakers. Even the government’s much higher estimates of 12,000-19,000 barrels a day seemed on the low side after Allen said the company planned to double its collection of oil from the well to 20,000 barrels every day (840,000 gallons/3.18 million liters).
Allen said on Tuesday U.S. scientists would present revised estimates later this week or early next week. The panel of experts has said BP’s latest effort to contain the oil spill could actually increase the flow rate by up to 20 percent.
BP and government officials have said a definitive solution will not come until August when a relief well is drilled.
“WHOSE ASS TO KICK”
Obama, who faces growing criticism that he has appeared detached from the economic and ecological catastrophe hitting four U.S. Gulf states, sharpened his criticism of BP in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show that aired on Tuesday.
Obama said he was talking to experts to find out what had gone wrong “so I know whose ass to kick” over the spill, which has soiled 120 miles of U.S. coastline and threatens the Gulf Coast’s lucrative fishing industry.
Fadel Gheit, an analyst at Oppenheimer and Co, said it was “not a coincidence” that BP’s shares were down after Obama’s comments increased pressure on the company to fix the mess.
In New York, BP’s American depositary shares fell more than 5 percent, mirroring the losses in earlier London trading.
Transocean shares also tumbled in New York, trading to their lowest in 18 months, as the market worried about the company’s liability for the oil disaster.
BP shares have lost about a third of their value since the crisis erupted. Investors are worried about the size of the final bill for the spill, expected to be in the billions.
The company has already spent more than $1 billion on cleaning up the slick, which has fouled wildlife refuges in Louisiana and barrier islands in Mississippi and Alabama and also sent tar balls ashore on beaches in Florida.
One-third of the Gulf’s federal waters, or 78,000 square miles (200,000 square km), remains closed to fishing, and the toll of dead and injured birds and marine animals is climbing.
U.S. weather forecasters gave their first confirmation on Tuesday that some of the oil leaking from BP’s well has lingered beneath the surface rather than rising to the top. Undersea oil depletes the water’s oxygen content and threatens marine life like mussels, clams, crabs, eels and shrimp.
In Fort Jackson in southern Louisiana, the New Orleans Saints, winners of the National Football League’s Superbowl in February, held a rally to help lift the spirits of communities reeling from the spill.
“I came out to support the Saints and to try and get my mind off the oil spill. This team has meant everything to the state of Louisiana,” said local homemaker Laura Bartholomew.
Hundreds of fans, many wearing black and gold jerseys, braved scorching temperatures to attend the rally.
Additional reporting by Tom Bergin in London, Michael Miller and Ernest Scheyder in New York, Anna Driver in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, Chris Baltimore in Houston, Michael Peltier in Florida and Tom Doggett, Ayesha Rascoe and Timothy Gardner in Washington; writing by Pascal Fletcher and Ross Colvin; editing by Ed Stoddard and Alan Elsner