With a storm threatening to disrupt oil-siphoning efforts at BP Plc's blown-out Gulf of Mexico well, the U.S. Coast Guard on Friday said collection efforts would be suspended five days before the forecast onset of gale-force winds.
A tropical disturbance over the western Caribbean could deal a big setback to efforts by BP to contain oil gushing from the well, estimated by the U.S. government at up to 60,000 barrels (2.5 million gallons/9.5 million liters) per day.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. government's point man on the oil spill, said it would be necessary five days before gale force winds are forecast to arrive to take down operations involving ships and other equipment siphoning some of the oil spewing from BP's ruptured deep-sea well.
During this period, the oil could flow unchecked from the ruptured well into the sea for up to 14 days, Allen said.
The U.S. National Weather Service defines gale force winds as 39 mph to 54 mph. When referring to gale force winds, Allen mentioned about 40 knots, which is 46 mph.
Our threshold to begin taking action is 120 hours before gale force winds are forecasted, Allen said.
Two oil-capture systems siphon oil from the leak to a drillship and a service rig a mile above the well at the water's surface. Both use fixed pipes that require days to disconnect and allow the vessels to move out of the path of a storm, officials have said.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the tropical disturbance over the western Caribbean Sea continued to strengthen, and has a high 70 percent chance of developing into a tropical depression over the next two days.
Some forecast models predict it will go into the central or eastern Gulf of Mexico, where BP is struggling to plug the leak.
In other spill-related developments:
* BP said the first of two relief wells intended to permanently plug the leak had been drilled to 11,275 feet below the seabed, or less than 2,000 feet from the bottom of the leaking well.
BP would have to suspend any relief well drilling efforts about four days and eight hours before the forecast onset of gale-force winds, Allen said.
* BP said its siphoning systems collected or burned off 23,725 barrels of oil on Thursday. That's about 12 percent less than its record 27,100-barrel capture total on Tuesday. The containment cap system channeling oil to the drillship is continuing to ramp up after a 10-hour shutdown to fix a problem from Wednesday, BP said.
* Electromagnetic sensors placed in the relief well have detected the location of the blown-out well, but BP said it would need more precise readings from the sensors before boring into the ruptured well as part of the operation to plug it.
(Editing by Will Dunham)