With tensions simmering on both sides of the Atlantic, BP’s handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is set to top the agenda of talks Saturday between US and British leaders.
The White House said that President Barack Obama is to call British Prime Minister David Cameron from the Oval Office.
The two men will likely seek to ease tensions after Obama stepped up his criticism of BP over the spill, the biggest man-made environmental disaster in the United States, and Cameron threw his support behind a “financially strong” BP.
Obama has summoned BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg to meet with him in Washington next Wednesday, criticized chief executive Tony Hayward, and fired a warning over shareholder payouts.
British newspapers in turn have demanded that Cameron stand up to Obama in the phone call.
The US State Department and Cameron’s government have downplayed suggestions of a rift, while analysts say the allies’ primary concern remains their joint efforts in Afghanistan and over Iran’s nuclear program.
BP 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,” a BP spokesman told AFP on Saturday.
“No decision has been made on it, we are looking at options,” said the spokesman. “There’s a board meeting on Monday but they are not necessarily going to take a decision on it then.”
The 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.
BP CEO Tony Hayward told The Wall Street Journal on Friday that the discussions were ongoing. “We are considering all options on the dividend. But no decision has been made,” he said.
Top US lawmaker Nancy Pelosi urged BP not to pay dividends and echoed pleas from Obama not to shortchange those hit by the disaster.
“I’m saying that they should not be paying dividends until they make these people whole, and make a better effort to do it in a timely fashion,” the Democratic House Speaker told reporters.
The final price tag is still a guess because it is still unclear how much oil is flowing from the well, how long the spill will last, and how far the oil will travel.
The firm’s share price has fallen over 40 percent since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, prompting speculation about bankruptcy and a takeover bid.
BP’s liabilities have sky-rocketed in tandem with estimates of the growing scale of the oil spill, as analysts believe the company may eventually pay out more than four billion dollars.
The British oil giant’s costs are tied to new estimates that put the amount of oil spilled at between one and two million barrels so far, double the previous estimate, Wall Street experts said.
US government data on Thursday suggested the flow of the leak — before a containment system was put in place last week — was between 25,000 and 30,000 barrels a day and could be upwards of 40,000 barrels a day.
Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral heading the US response to the catastrophe, said BP was working to double the amount of oil it could recover from a containment system.
Allen said he was reviewing BP plans to collect 40,000 to 50,000 barrels of oil a day by July once a more permanent cap has been placed over the well, up from the current 28,000 barrels per day.
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.
“It makes it difficult and creates sort of a natural cynicism, if you will… we’ve got to verify the information we’re getting. It needs to be accurate. Otherwise it makes it hard to respond accordingly,” Crist told CNN.
The higher estimate of oil gushing “also means that there’s higher likelihood it will get to Mississippi,” said that state’s governor, Haley Barbour.
Up to now Mississippi’s beaches have been spared, though one of their barrier islands was soiled, Barbour told CNN.
“The biggest economic damage for Mississippi is that we’ve had a
Florida Governor Charlie Crist said the “moving numbers” on the estimates of gushing oil was undermining trust in BP. tremendous number of cancellations, whether of fishing trips or family vacations … most all of our economic damage has been done,” he said.
Spill response operations were suspended Friday near a natural gas platform in Cocodrie, southwest Louisiana, after 36 workers were taken to hospital when their supply vessel broke open a gas line while mooring, the Joint Command Center said.
As a precaution, some 800 response workers aboard 120 vessels were recalled to shore from the area, BP said.