British oil giant BP reported that it was managing to collect at least some of the crude spewing from its crippled well in the Gulf of Mexico as an increasingly frustrated President Barack Obama paid a third visit to the region and the governor of Louisiana blasted the company's CEO for making "idiotic" statements.
Pressure bore down on BP from all sides with news that parts of the oil slick had arrived for the first time in Pensacola, Florida, where tourist brochures boast of the "world's whitest beaches".
New computer models showed the slick curling around southern Florida soon and travelling swiftly into the Atlantic. Media outlets showed sickening images of sea birds so drenched in oil they were barely able to move.
Early in the day top BP bosses had tried to reassure investors about the company's ability to withstand the storm. Tony Hayward, the CEO, insisted that the company still had "considerable firepower" to cover the financial fall-out from the disaster even while acknowledging that it would be "severe" and long-lasting.
The company offered no firm guidance on plans for dividend payments to shareholders. Some US politicians have called for these to be suspended while BP addresses the needs of residents of the Gulf. The impact of such a step would be felt widely, not least in Britain where BP stock underpins millions of pension plans.
Addressing the dividends issue, BP's chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, hinted they would be paid but made no commitments. "We fully understand the importance of our dividend to our shareholders.
"Future decisions on the quarterly dividend will be made by the board, as they always have been, on the basis of the circumstances at the time. All factors will be considered and the decision taken in the long-term interests of the shareholders."
No sooner was Mr Obama in the region than he was again hitting out at BP over dividends and its self-image management. "My understanding is that BP has contracted for $50 million worth of TV advertising to manage their image during the course of this disaster," Mr Obama said.
"In addition, there are reports that BP will be paying $10.5 billion – that's billion with a "B" – in dividend payments this quarter. Now I don't have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations, but I want BP to be very clear they've got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf for the damage that has been done."
He went on: "What I don't want to hear is, when they're spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they're nickel and diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf."
After a week when he was caught out for making strikingly inappropriate remarks about the crisis – including saying "I'd like my life back" before apologising to the families of the 11 rig workers who died last month – Mr Hayward may not have helped his cause by saying to analysts that he remained "unscathed" despite being a "lightning rod". Oddest of all, he came out with the old saying: "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me, or however the phrase goes."
Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Governor, had ended a tour of oil-smeared coastal areas when he let fly at Mr Hayward. "These are some of the most idiotic statements I have ever heard," he said. "I would wonder about trusting a multi-billion company to somebody who is making those kinds of statements." BP said last night that Mr Hayward "enjoys the full and explicit support of the board."
There was some hope for BP from its latest sea-bed operations to quell the leak. Doug Suttles, its chief operating officer, reported that following the placement overnight of a containment "top hat" over the leak, oil was being siphoned into a ship at the rate of 1,000 barrels a day.
While that is only a fraction of the 19,000 barrels that may be escaping from the well every day, BP hoped that the rate of flow from the cap could be significantly increased. It remains unlikely, however, that BP will be able to staunch the leaks entirely until August when – weather, and especially hurricanes, permitting – the company should have completed construction of two relief wells.
As much as 47 million gallons of crude may now have leached into the ocean and is already threatening multiple ecosystems and upending the livelihoods of coastal residents.
For President Obama, the BP disaster now trumps all other domestic and foreign priorities. Beset by allegations that he was disengaged from the crisis for too long, he flew down to Louisiana only a week after his last visit there. The White House also confirmed that he had postponed for a second time an overseas trip set for later this month to Indonesia and Australia.
A new poll by CBS News showed 63 per cent of Americans believed that the US government has not done enough to end the crisis.
The latest simulations for how the oil might soon attach itself to the rotating loop current in the Gulf, and from there travel around southern Florida, came from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Researchers said it was "very likely" that oil would thereafter feed into the Atlantic at a speed of 100 miles a day.
"It is truly a simulation, not a prediction," said Terry Wallace, principal associate director at the Laboratory. "But it shows that when you inject something into the Gulf, it is likely to have much larger consequences."
Synte Peacock, an oceanographer, added: "From these simulations we can say with a high degree of certainty that it is very likely sometime in the next six months that oil from this spill will get into the Atlantic. We can say that when it happens, it will be fast, much faster than anything we have seen so far."
BP's embattled boss
The Americans are unimpressed with the soft-spoken CEO of BP, Anthony Hayward, who, after abandoning his native Britain to live in the United States to oversee the response to the Gulf of Mexico disaster, did himself no favours this week when he let slip: "You know, I would like my life back."
Mr Hayward, who may be more skilled as a geologist than as a politician, was swift to apologise for the remark, not least to the families of the 11 men who died on the BP rig 46 days ago. But it has been the catalyst for a sudden chorus in the US insinuating – or demanding – that he should be fired from his job.
"Another Torrent BP Works to Stem: its CEO" was the headline in The New York Times yesterday on an article focused less on Mr Hayward's competence as an executive than on his skills as a communicator. It called him the company's "gaffe-prone chief executive".
On other occasions Mr Hayward has managed to reinforce the perception that BP wants to downplay the disaster. Here he was noting that things could be worse because the Gulf is "a very big ocean". There he was arguing that "the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest."
The Times is not alone in throwing rotten tomatoes. "As BP Faces Fallout, Chief's Fate Hangs in the Balance", read a Wall Street Journal headline. Sensing trouble, BP hired a new PR chief for the US last week , Anne Womack-Kolton, a former spokesperson for Dick Cheney. Someone in BP thought that was a good idea.