BP oil spill: relief well drilling 'ahead of schedule'

Ships and drilling rigs surround the Discoverer Enterprise
Image caption BP began drilling two relief wells in May

BP says its operation to drill a relief well to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil leak is "slightly ahead of schedule".

A spokeswoman for the company told the BBC it was "ahead of the original schedule of completion in August".

Asked about comments made by Bob Dudley, the man in charge, that finishing by 27 July was possible, she emphasised the caveats in what he said.

Mr Dudley said completion between 20 and 27 July was possible but only "in a perfect world with no interruptions".

In his interview with the Wall Street Journal newspaper earlier this week, Mr Dudley added that such a "perfect case" was threatened by the hurricane season in the region and was "unlikely".

The US National Hurricane Center issued a warning in the early hours of Wednesday about a tropical depression which has formed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tropical storms could disrupt efforts to contain oil which has been leaking from the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig since April.

Although the depression is not predicted to become a major hurricane, tropical storm warnings were issued for the Texas and Mexico coastlines.

BP is facing massive clean-up costs and compensation claims as a result of the Gulf of Mexico oil leak.

Spokeswoman Sheila Williams repeated Mr Dudley's caveats about whether the relief well could be completed by 27 July, saying such an outcome would only be possible without delays or interruptions caused by hurricanes or unforeseen problems.

She also said that as the drilling for the relief well got deeper and closer to the leaking pipe the operation would become "more delicate and technically difficult".

Government monitoring business

Since the oil started leaking BP has tried a number of different ways to plug the well, including a failed "top kill" procedure which tried to staunch the flow by pumping huge quantities of mud into the blowout preventer (BOP) that sits on the seabed.

The company began drilling for the first of two relief wells on 2 May, and for a second on 16 May.

The US government has been highly critical of BP's handling of the oil leak.

Congressmen have accused Chief Executive Tony Hayward of not taking responsibility for the disaster, while questioning him about alleged cost-cutting measures that could have contributed to the explosion and leak.

On Wednesday the US government asked BP to tell it of any major asset sales or merger deals in advance, as it continues to keep a close eye on the oil giant.

The highly unusual request was made in a letter from the US Department of Justice, dated 23 June.

BP told the BBC it had yet to respond to the letter.

Share bounce

In its most recent update, BP said the oil leak had now cost it $3.12bn (£2bn), though the total cost is forecast by analysts to be tens of billions of dollars.

As a result, the company has said it will look at selling some assets and attracting new investment.

Mr Hayward visited Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, with media reports speculating he was in the region to entice wealthy investors.

BP said Mr Hayward's visit was routine.

Speculation has grown in recent days about potential investors in BP, including the Kuwaiti Investment Authority, China's PetroChina and the US oil giant Exxon Mobil.

These reports, as well as statements from BP saying the company had no plans to issue new shares, have helped the company's share price to rally this week - including a 5% rise on Wednesday.

But despite the bounce, BP's shares have almost halved in value since the Deepwater Horizon explosion on 20 April.

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