VENICE, La./PENSACOLA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - BP's containment cap is capturing an increasing amount of oil spewing from a ruptured Gulf of Mexico well, but the U.S. admiral leading the government relief effort said on Sunday the coast will be under siege from the massive spill for many more months.
BP said its latest effort had captured 10,500 barrels of oil (439,950 gallons/1.67 million liters) in 24 hours and a second containment system should enable it to soon control the vast majority of oil spewing from the leak about 1 mile below the water's surface.
The progress came as the company's Chief Executive Tony Hayward said he has no plans to quit over his handling of the environmental disaster marked by a string of failures since the April 20 rig explosion that triggered the oil spill.
Thad Allen, the Coast Guard admiral heading up the federal relief effort, estimated the maximum collection from the containment device at about 15,000 barrels a day. Estimates put the well's leak at 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day.
Despite the progress, Allen told CBS's "Face the Nation" program: "This will only end when we intercept the wellbore, pump mud down it to overcome the pressure of the oil coming up from the reservoir and put a cement plug in ..."
"This will be well into the fall," he said. "This is a siege across the entire Gulf. This spill is holding everybody hostage, not only economically but physically, and it has to be attacked on all fronts."
For many in Florida, the man-made environmental disaster is just the latest in a series of disastrous events to befall panhandle residents, from hurricanes to the housing bust.
"(Hurricane) Ivan took my roof off, the housing market took my business and my house and now this is hampering my comeback," said Bill Paul, who has scrapped plans to open a restaurant and was protesting at a BP station in Pensacola.
Pressure has mounted on London-based BP to stop the leak from the ruined seabed well and bear the cost of the cleanup and damage caused to coastal fisheries, wildlife and tourism.
Hayward became a lightning rod for Americans' anger with BP when he told struggling Gulf Coast residents last month, "I would like my life back," a remark widely seen as insensitive.
"It hasn't crossed my mind," Hayward when asked by The Sunday Telegraph if he might resign because of the spill. "It's clearly crossed other people's minds but not mine."
Hayward told the BBC he had the full support of BP's board and the company's balance sheet was strong, despite the plunge in the company's market value as a result of the disaster.
"BP is ... generating a lot of cash. It will generate $30 to $35 billion of free cash flow this year ... We have the financial strength to see through this," he told the BBC.
"We have a further containment system to implement in the course of this coming week which will be in place by next weekend," Hayward told the BBC. "When these two are in place we ... hope to be containing the vast majority of the oil."
DEFENSIVE AND DISTRACTED
The Obama administration has delayed plans to increase offshore drilling as a result of the spill. The crisis has put President Barack Obama on the defensive and distracted his team from their domestic agenda - a new energy policy, reform of Wall Street and bolstering a struggling American economy.
The focus on America's biggest environmental disaster comes ahead of November's congressional elections in which the Democrats are expected to struggle to keep their majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate.
Obama wants to tap into public anger over images of polluted beaches and fishing grounds to press for faster development of alternative energy such as solar and wind power, which was already on his agenda. On Sunday, Senator John Kerry said lawmakers and Obama should now push that policy forward.
"I am convinced you're going to see the Congress of the United States and the (Obama) administration together hold BP ... accountable," Kerry, a Democrat, told ABC's "This Week."
Kerry said America needs Congress to agree to a comprehensive energy policy that would cut pollution, be better for national security and create millions of jobs.
"Here's what's important - not to be throwing the blame around, but to put America on the course to true energy independence and self-reliance and to begin to wean ourselves from our addiction to oil," Kerry said.
In a speech last week at Carnegie Mellon University, Obama said the spill showed the United States cannot continue to depend so heavily on fossil fuels. He said offshore drilling was only a short-term solution to America's energy needs.
But Senator John Cornyn said Republicans oppose a broad energy bill.
"Rather than try to hit a grand slam home run, I'd like to work with Senator Kerry and others to hit some singles and develop nuclear power, battery technology that will help us deal with our environmental concerns," he said on ABC.
Oil began leaking from the well after the rig explosion that killed 11 workers. BP faces a criminal investigation, lawsuits, dwindling investor confidence and questions about its credit-worthiness. Its shares have lost about one-third of their value since the crisis began.
BP said it has spent US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) on the spill and vowed to pay all legitimate claims of those harmed by the disaster.
After contaminating wetland wildlife refuges in Louisiana and barrier islands in Mississippi and Alabama, the black tide of crude oil has taken aim at some of the famous white beaches of Florida, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist told CNN the oil debris washing up on Panhandle beaches was relatively easy to clean up because it was landing on the famous sugar-white beaches instead of in marshes or estuaries, as in Louisiana.
Ron Gillette, a Pensacola medical supplies salesman, has been surfing in recent days and said that while little oil was in evidence in the water, "We can smell it. It stinks bad."
Tourism is Florida's largest industry, employing nearly 1 million people. And some businesses are already suffering.
"It's already affected our business," said Yancy Spencer, owner of the Innerlight Surf Shop in Gulf Breeze, the neighboring town to Pensacola Beach. "We own rental places too and we've had people canceling their week here."
Fully one-third of the Gulf's federal waters, or 78,603 square miles (202,582 square km), remains closed to fishing, and the toll of dead and injured birds and marine animals, including sea turtles and dolphins, is climbing.
In Louisiana's Four Bayou Pass, which separates Barataria Pass from the Gulf of Mexico, wildlife rescue workers hired by BP were dressed in white protective suits as they searched by boat from island to island for oiled birds.
The absorbent boom around one mangrove island, teeming with pelicans with nests and chicks, was covered in crude, stained orange and dark brown. Oiled birds were visible behind the soiled boom.
Concerned about the damage to tourism, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said on "Fox News Sunday" that his state's beaches have only a few tar balls.
"The coast is clear, come on down," he said.