Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tropical Storm Alex expected to churn toward Gulf of Mexico

A potentially dangerous tropical storm named Alex that experts say could complicate the Gulf of Mexico oil spill clean-up formed Saturday in the Caribbean Sea.

At 0900 GMT, the eye of the storm, which packed sustained winds of 40 miles (65 kilometers) an hour, was located 220 miles (355 kilometers) east of Belize City, according to the Miami-based US National Hurricane Center.

A tropical storm warning was in effect on the east coast of Belize, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and on the coastal islands in Honduras.

But after dropping rain on the Central American nations, the storm was expected to turn toward the Gulf of Mexico.

"A gradual turn toward the northeast and an increase in forward speed are expected in the next 48 hours," the government-controlled center said in an advisory.

Alex was expected to approach the Yucatan Peninsula on Sunday morning.

Weather forecasters had earlier said the storm by next week could head for the site of the huge oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico unleashed by the April 20 explosion of the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig.

"This will be the first time and there is no playbook," Coast Guard commandant Thad Allen told CNN commenting on the weather.

"I will tell you there has been an extraordinary amount of planning being done between the folks of the national incident command and incident commanders on the ground," he said.

Vice President Joe Biden was heading to the region on Tuesday and was due to visit the New Orleans-based National Incident Command Center and then travel to the Florida panhandle, Allen said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Carol Browner, who heads the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, will also visit.

Oil began oozing on to beaches in northwestern Florida Thursday, prompting a swimming ban from far western Florida to the east side of Pensacola Beach through Santa Rosa Island, one of the region's most popular attractions.

The state's 1,260 miles (2,000 kilometers) of western coastline is home to scores of beaches as well as pristine coral reefs and an important fishing industry.

State officials have mounted an aggressive beach and coastline cleanup effort to stop the oil from reaching Florida beaches.

At a time of high unemployment in other sectors, tourism in Florida generates more than a million jobs, bringing the state 65 billion dollars in revenue in 2008.

BP shares plummeted to a 13-year low in London on Friday after the group ramped up the costs of the spill so far to 2.35 billion dollars (1.9 billion euros).

The company's share values have been cut by more than half since the April 20 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and unleashed the worst oil spill in US history.

The company's stock collapsed by almost nine percent in mid-morning trading to plumb a low of 296 pence on the London Stock Exchange, hitting a level last seen in August 1996 amid investor alarm over spiraling costs.

On Saturday, activists and southeast Louisiana residents are scheduled to gather at area beaches to hold hands and show their support for clean energy and oppose offshore drilling.

The "Hands Across the Sand" event will take place in all US states and some 30 countries, organizers said.

"It's time to stand up to the oil industry. It's time to move America beyond oil and into a clean energy future," said Aaron Viles, Campaign Director of the Gulf Restoration Network.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal separately declared Sunday a "Statewide Day of Prayer for perseverance during the oil spill crisis."

Jindal, a Republican politician of Indian descent, opposes the six-month moratorium imposed on exploratory offshore drilling, claiming it will only compound the state's suffering.

Oil siphoning operations resumed Wednesday morning, some 11 hours after BP removed the containment cap over the gushing well after a remotely-operated submarine robot bumped into the device.

The accident shut down a vent, forcing gas up into part of the system. The device traps spewing crude and siphons it up to two surface vessels.

The overall amount of crude gushing from the damaged well is still unclear, with the latest government estimates ranging from 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day.


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