The federal government has given BP until the end of the weekend to find ways to speed up efforts to contain huge amounts of oil gushing from a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a letter released Saturday, as large globs of brown crude coated Alabama's white sand beaches.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. James A. Watson sent a letter to BP officials on Friday expressing frustration with the overall pace of the effort and ordered the company to identify ways to expedite the process in the coming says.
"Recognizing the complexity of this challenge, every effort must be expended to speed up the process," Watson wrote in the letter, sent to Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer.
BP has struggled with several efforts to contain the oil. The latest cap installed on the blown-out well is capturing about 650,000 gallons of oil a day, but large quantities are still spilling into the sea.
Scientists have estimated that anywhere between about 40 million gallons to 109 million gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf since a drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
The Coast Guard initially sent a letter to BP on Wednesday asking for more details on its plans to contain the oil. BP responded, saying a new system to trap oil spewing from the well should be complete by mid-July.
That system's new design is meant to better withstand the force of hurricanes and could capture about 2 million gallons of oil daily when fully built, the oil giant said.
But Watson said he was concerned that BP's plans didn't maximize resources or "go far enough to mobilize redundant resources" in the event of an equipment failure or another problem.
"BP must identify in the next 48 hours additional leak containment capacity that could be operationalized and expedited to avoid the continued discharge of oil," Watson wrote.
BP spokesman Jon Pack said the company received Watson's letter and would respond to it as soon as possible.
The letter and deadline comes just before President Barack Obama is set to visit the Gulf Coast on Monday and Tuesday. On Saturday, Mr. Obama reassured British Prime Minister David Cameron that his frustration over the oil spill in the Gulf was not an attack on Britain, the British government said.
The two leaders spoke by phone for 30 minutes Saturday to soothe trans-Atlantic tensions over the huge spill. Cameron also has been under pressure to get President Obama to tone down the criticism fearing it will hurt the millions of British retirees that hold BP stock.
Cameron's office said the prime minister "expressed his sadness at the ongoing human and environmental catastrophe," but stressed BP's economic importance to Britain, the U.S. and other countries.
It said Mr. Obama recognized that BP - which he has pointedly referred to in public by its former name, British Petroleum - is a multinational company, "and that frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity." President Obama said he had no interest in undermining BP's value. The company's stock has lost 40 percent of its value since the oil rig fire on April 20 that unleashed the United States' worst oil spill.
Along the Gulf Coast, Alabama's beaches took their worst hit yet from the oil spill on Saturday as chocolate-colored oil slathered beaches along the coast.
During a flight over the Gulf, Sean Brumley, an aerial spotter, said he saw an oily sheen and brown patches of oil floating for miles off the Alabama coast. Boats trying to remove the oil before it hit the coast worked about three miles out.
"The Gulf looks like it has chicken pox," Brumley said.
On the beach, pools of crude oil as much as 4 inches deep hit the beach in waves, and the surf was a dark, ugly shade of brown. No one was in the water, and the beaches that normally are packed with people this time of year were virtually deserted.
Stinking, dark piles of oil dried in the hot sun, extending as much as 12 feet from the water's edge for as far as the eye could see.
"I didn't think it was a big deal yesterday. This is awful," said Shelley Booker of Shreveport, La., who was staying in a condominium with her teenage daughter and six of her friends.
The beaches in Florida's Panhandle were largely free of tar Saturday - but signs of the fight against the spill were everywhere. Officials have said that two wide sections of the slick were just off the shoreline.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, rallied volunteers and employees at Gulf Islands National Seashore on Saturday, preparing them for a long fight against the oil.
But the slow movement of the oil and constant preparations for its arrival were taking toll on beach residents.
"It's like waiting for someone to die from cancer," said Greg Hall, who walks the beach each morning.