President Barack Obama was expected to focus on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster in talks on Saturday with Britain's new leader, even as the first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season threatened to disrupt containment and cleanup efforts.
Tropical Storm Alex is currently tracking too far west to threaten oil siphoning operations at BP Plc.'s blown-out Macondo well off the Louisiana coast, the top U.S. oil spill official said on Saturday.
But the storm is still being watched warily. Shell Oil Co. said it would evacuate 300 non-essential workers from its Gulf of Mexico platforms and rigs as a precaution.
The worst oil spill in U.S. history, and prospects for London-based energy giant BP, were likely to be key issues under discussion as Obama and British P.M. David Cameron meet at the G8/G20 summit in Canada.
BP recovered about 24,550 barrels from the leaking well a mile under the ocean's surface on Friday. About two thirds was collected by two rigs and the rest was flared, along with some 54.5 million cubic feet of natural gas.
Current official estimates suggest the daily leak is between 35,000 to 60,000 barrels.
New equipment being moved to the site of the leak next week could raise the daily collection rate to 53,000 barrels a day, said U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and U.S. Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar were to review plans on Wednesday for a new containment system that could boost collection to 80,000 barrels per day, said Allen, who is coordinating the U.S. oil spill response.
Still, the possible approach of Alex could seriously complicate efforts at the site of the leak and along hundreds of miles of coastline from Louisiana to Florida.
After midday on Saturday, Alex had sustained winds of 65 miles per hour (104 km per hour) and was located about 30 miles east southeast of Belize City, Belize, bearing down on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
In a stroke of luck, the storm, which has the potential to become a hurricane, was moving on a track that would move into the Gulf far enough west to miss containment efforts.
We understand it's moving westerly at this time and does not threaten the site, Allen said, adding however that we know that these tracks can change.
Still, most hurricanes span a huge area, and heavy, sustained winds could push the oil slick into fragile coastlines with more ferocity than has been seen so far.
The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration said that generally, because a hurricane's winds rotate counterclockwise, a storm passing to the west of the oil slick could drive oil toward the coast.
In Grand Isle, Louisiana, a tiny village jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico and a haven for commercial and recreational fishing, residents anxiously awaited updates on the path of the storm, now in the western Caribbean.
If it comes and it's somewhat severe, you might as well say goodbye to Grand Isle, said Pam Brooks, 50. The oil will get thrown up and coat everything.
Hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, has been looming since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sunk in 5,000 feet of water on April 22, two days after an explosion and fire killed 11 workers.
Meteorologists predict 2010 will be an active year for storms, in part because of warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic.
God forbid if we have another (Hurricane) Katrina, we'll be picking oil off Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said during a tour of the bay.
The ultimate solution to plugging the undersea gusher still lies in a relief well being drilled by BP that is not expected to be finished for another few weeks.
BP SHARES SAVAGED
Shares in BP, a core holding for many UK pension funds, fell more than 6 percent on Friday to 14-year lows, prompting Cameron to offer his strongest comments yet on the issue.
It is ... in all our long-term interests that there is some clarity, some finality, to all of this, so that we don't at the same time see the destruction of a company that is important for all our interests, Cameron said.
Obama has been highly critical of BP while his own poll ratings have fallen, in part because of perceptions that his handling of the crisis has been too slow.
Investors fear the potential costs to BP, which include but are not limited to a $20 billion compensation fund it set up under intense U.S. political pressure.
The Obama administration on Friday asked a U.S. appeals court to stay a ruling from a federal judge that overturned a six-month ban on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf.
The disaster, now into its 68th day, is taking a mounting toll on fishing, tourism and the environment.
About one-third of U.S. federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico remain closed to fishing.
Crews on Grande Isle on Saturday scraped oil off the beach with tractors and shovels. A wall of rocks right on the water's edge sat coated in a thin brown goo.
We don't even go to the beach anymore, said Zackery Santiny, 18. We don't want to see the oil.
(Additional reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston; Jose Cortazar in Cancun and Cyntia Barrera Diaz in Mexico City; Writing by Ros Krasny; editing by Todd Eastham)