U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen has warned that a major tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico could shut down the oil spill containment effort for as much as two weeks, as officials closely monitor a tropical weather system forming in the Caribbean.
Briefing reporters Friday, Admiral Allen said the oil spill response team would need roughly five days notice to move their vessels to safety, once gale force winds of more than 34 kilometers per hour are forecast.
He said if the containment effort had to be abandoned, the leaking oil well would be unattended and oil would flow freely into the Gulf.
The admiral's comments come as U.S. forecasters with the National Hurricane Center say a tropical weather system forming in the Caribbean is moving towards the Gulf and is likely to intensify in the next two days.
The forecasters say the low pressure system is currently located between Honduras and the Grand Cayman Islands, and is drifting slowly northwest towards the Gulf. They say there is an excellent chance it could organize into a strong tropical storm in the next two days.
Admiral Allen said U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will be in the Gulf Coast region Tuesday to assess the response and clean-up efforts.
Allen also reported an oil production vessel from the North Sea is expected to be in place next week that should more than double the amount of oil captured from the leaking well.
Oil giant BP reports 23,725 barrels of oil were collected or burned off on Thursday. Allen says the company hopes to be able to collect as much as 53,000 barrels a day from the well site by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, BP says it has so far spent $2.35 billion responding to the oil spill in the Gulf. The London-based company released the new number Friday, saying it includes $126 million in payments to those impacted by the spill.
On Thursday, a federal judge denied a request by the Obama administration to overturn a judicial ruling that allows oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Obama administration had imposed a six-month moratorium on all deepwater drilling following the massive oil spill in the Gulf. But U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman blocked the ban earlier this week, saying the government assumed all deepwater oil rigs were in danger because one exploded. The government can still appeal the judge's order.
U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the ban May 27 following the explosion and fire that killed 11 people on a drilling platform and caused the massive, ongoing oil spill in the Gulf.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.
Related report by VOA Carolyn Presutti