BP, the Gulf oil spill and 87 days that changed the world

The leak has stopped but the ramifications extend far beyond the Louisiana coastline
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All should be better for David Cameron as he goes to the White House on Tuesday to see Barack Obama now that BP has killed its black plume in the Gulf of Mexico. But it won't be, because he will find a Washington in full fulmination all over again about the release of the Lockerbie conspirator Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

In a sign of the most unusual strain between the two allies, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, told the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, yesterday that when hearings into the circumstances of the release – and what involvement BP may have had behind the scenes – open on Capitol Hill on 29 July, she expects Britain to say something new. The implication is that the US isn't buying the explanations London has offered up so far.

Had it not been for the oil spill, BP may never have been in the dock over the Megrahi affair, but the anger in Washington over his release never went away. Ten days ago four US senators wrote a letter to the UK ambassador in Washington, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, voicing dismay over reports that medical reasons given for releasing him on "compassionate grounds" may have been concocted with Libya's direct encouragement. It was only a matter of days before the same senators connected the dots to BP and demanding hearings on the Hill.

Thus late on Thursday, Senator John Kerry confirmed that indeed new hearings would take place within two weeks. Above all, committee members will explore claims that BP urged the Government behind the scenes to release Megrahi.

That all this should flare up now is fantastically bad for BP, which had been bursting every artery to close the broken well in time for the Cameron visit. There is no applause in Washington. As for it happening days before the Prime Minister's first Washington foray – awful.

That Britain should find itself being squeezed in public by the US in this manner is extraordinary. On Thursday, Sir Nigel wrote an open letter to the senators saying the Government believed the release of Megrahi was a "mistake". But he sought to knock down any notion the release was linked to BP's commercial ambitions. "I am troubled by the claims made in the press that Megrahi was released because of an oil deal involving BP, and that the medical evidence supporting his release was paid for by the Libyan government," Sir Nigel wrote in a letter to Mr Kerry.

In an interview with Time magazine, Mr Cameron makes the observation that the US-UK relationship is hardly one of equals. "I think Britain is, of course, the junior partner," he says, "but I ... hope that we bring things to that relationship." That being so, the US is applying its disproportionate weight to pressure Britain to come up with better answers about Megrahi. That seemed at least to be the import of the Clinton call to Mr Hague. "The Secretary indicated that, you know, it might be appropriate for the British Government to communicate with Congress as well to make sure that they fully understand, you know, what transpired a year ago," said Mrs Clinton's spokesman, P J Crowley.

87 Days that changed the world

DAY 1: 20 April

Explosion and fire on Deepwater Horizon rig kills 11. Two days later the rig sinks and a five-mile oil slick forms. Three days after that, first attempt to plug leak fails.

DAY 10

Barack Obama says BP is responsible for the clean-up. The next day CEO Tony Hayward says firm will pay all costs and legitimate compensation claims.

DAY 13

Obama makes first of four visits to Gulf Coast, as BP starts drilling a relief well alongside the failed well.

DAY 18

Attempt to place a “top hat” over the spewing well fails.

DAY 22

Executives from BP (rig operator), Transocean (owner) and Halliburton (firm responsible for vital cement work around the wellhead) appear at congressional hearings in Washington and the blame game begins.

DAY 30

First heavy oil hits Louisiana marshes.

DAY 38

US Geological Survey says up to 25,000 barrels may be spewing into sea every day, meaning spill is already bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the previous worst US oil spill.

DAY 40

Junk shot – where mud, tyres and golf balls are pumped into the hole – fails. The next day Hayward says: “I’d like my life back.”

DAY 43

Shares plunge after attempt to stem oil with robot subs fails. US Justice Department launches criminal investigation into the spill.

DAY 50

Obama demands to know “whose ass to kick”.

DAY 52

David Cameron offers to help BP deal with the spill. Shares rise more than 6 per cent in London the following day.

DAY 58

BP’s top brass head to White House and agree to set up a $20bn damages fund, suspend dividend to shareholders, and pay $100m to workers idled by the six-month moratorium on deep-sea drilling.

DAY 59

Hayward in the dock where he puts in a diffident performance. Two days later is snapped on his 52ft yacht off the Isle of Wight, sparking a new tide of American anger.

DAY 70

BP is forced to defend Hayward after Russia’s top energy official says he expects him to resign soon.

DAY 79

Tar balls washed up in Texas found to be from the spill, meaning every US Gulf state – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and now Texas – has been polluted. BP shares rise on speculation that company is looking for international investors.

DAY 84

BP installs a “capping stack” to stop the oil, but forced to delay testing because of fears the process could damage well beyond repair.

DAY 87

BP says it has stopped leak with new containment cap.