BP plagued by storm delay, claims concerns, Lockerbie query

Work to permanently seal BP's blown-out well may be pushed back a week. Meanwhile, some say BP is stalling on payments to economic victims, and Congress is examining whether company's Libyan oil interests influenced plane bomber's release.

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BP moved ships and workers back to a Gulf of Mexico oil spill as a storm diminished on Saturday, but work to permanently seal the blown-out well could be delayed at least a week.

Ships and rigs working to drill a relief well intended to halt the leak for good were expected back in place on Sunday, but reconnecting the piping to the well could delay the operation seven to nine days, officials said.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, head of the U.S. spill response, said the launch of a "static kill" operation to plug the well by pumping heavy drilling mud and possibly cement into it could start in three to five days.

As the storm threat eased, the independent administrator running a $20 billion fund set up by BP to compensate people for financial losses from the spill said the British energy giant was holding up payments to economic victims.

"I have a concern that BP is stalling claims. Yes, BP is stalling. I doubt they are stalling for money. It's not that. I just don't think they know the answers to the questions (by claimants)," Kenneth Feinberg told reporters in Alabama.

Thousands of businesses in Gulf coast states have been crippled by the oil spill, the worst in U.S. history. BP agreed to set up the $20 billion fund under pressure from President Barack Obama.

Work on the spill had been delayed by the approach of Tropical Depression Bonnie, but the National Hurricane Center said the storm was unlikely to strengthen and could degenerate into an area of low pressure later on Saturday.

Bonnie was downgraded from a tropical storm to a depression on Friday as it weakened on its trek across Florida into the Gulf. Bonnie could dissipate into a broad area of low pressure if its sustained winds fall another 5 miles per hour.

The storm was on course to make landfall between the Louisiana coast and Florida's northwest Panhandle late on Saturday. The ruptured deep-sea well--a mile under the ocean surface--is located off the coast of Louisiana.

Despite the delays, Bonnie could have some beneficial effect on the oil spill, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said at a media briefing.

"We expect that Bonnie should help dissipate and weather the oil at the surface," Lubchenco said, adding that it would help break tar patches and tar mats into smaller tar balls.

BP sealed the leak last week with a tight-fitting containment cap, choking off the flow of oil for the first time since an April 20 rig explosion killed 11 workers and sent crude spewing into the Gulf, soiling coastlines in five U.S. states and devastating tourism and fishery industries.

The storm evacuation will push back BP's mid-August target date for completing the relief well that would permanently plug the ruptured well. But the well remained capped, easing fears the flow would resume.

Allen said two ships had remained on site overnight to maintain surveillance on the cap as other ships pulled out ahead of the storm, and the wellhead retained its integrity.

At a town hall meeting in south Alabama, fishermen and other business owners told Feinberg of their frustration and anger at what they say is a slow and complex claims process that lacks transparency.

"After today there will be no more business as usual. I learned today the depth of frustration in people here on the coast," Feinberg told the meeting.

BP's spill is believed to have spewed more than 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf and has complicated relations between close allies the United States and Britain.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a letter to a U.S. lawmaker that the British energy company behaved in a "perfectly normal and legitimate" way in lobbying the British government in 2007 for a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.

In the letter to U.S. Senator John Kerry, Hague reiterated the British government's position that there is no evidence BP had any connection to Scottish authorities' release last year of the man convicted of the 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

British documents show several discussions between BP and the British government in 2007, Hague said, when a prisoner transfer deal with Libya was being negotiated at the same time BP was pursuing an oil exploration deal with Libya.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Kerry, has scheduled a July 29 hearing to examine whether BP's oil interests influenced the 2009 release of the only person convicted in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The bombing killed 270 people, most of them Americans.