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White House gives BP deadline for a better oil-collecting strategy

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010; 9:53 PM

Waves of crude oil reached the Alabama shoreline Saturday as the Obama administration announced it has given BP until the end of the weekend to devise a more aggressive strategy for collecting oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

In a letter released Saturday, Rear Adm. James A. Watson, the top Coast Guard official in the gulf, told BP officials that he was not satisfied with the company's current containment plan, adding that "every effort must be expended to speed up the process."

At the same time, President Obama tried to smooth diplomatic tensions over the disaster, reassuring British Prime Minister David Cameron that his anger toward the London-based BP would not affect relations between their countries.

In a 30-minute telephone call, Obama said "that his unequivocal view was that BP was a multinational global company and that frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity," according to a statement released by British officials.

The pair of messages underscored the political challenges for the administration in managing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Initially, Obama was criticized for not being firm enough in his reaction to the April 20 explosion, which has dumped between 40 million and 109 million gallons of oil into the ocean. In recent weeks, Obama has inserted himself more forcefully, scheduling another visit to the region Monday and summoning BP executives to a White House meeting Wednesday. But as he ratcheted up the rhetoric -- using a profanity last week and suggesting that the company's top executive should have been fired -- Obama encountered some backlash.

In Britain, politicians and commentators complained that his attacks jeopardize the viability of a major employer.

Obama's use of BP's earlier name, British Petroleum, reveals the president's "Anglophobic spite," British author Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the Daily Mail. "His rabid denunciations of BP have damaged the interests not only of that company but of most British people."

Thousands of Britons are invested in the oil giant through pension funds: Analysts estimate that 1 of every 7 pounds paid in dividends to British pension funds comes from BP. Under pressure from Washington, however, BP appears set to suspend that dividend at least temporarily. Fears are also mounting that the plunge in BP's share price has made the company susceptible to a takeover.

"When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP, it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on the airwaves," London Mayor Boris Johnson told BBC Radio.

In his letter, Watson criticized BP for basing its latest containment plan on earlier, lower estimates of oil flow. "It is clear that additional capacity is urgently needed," he wrote.

Britain's tabloids used Saturday's World Cup opener between England and the United States in South Africa to further the transatlantic rivalry. The match ended in a 1-1 tie.

By late in the day, the transatlantic diplomatic spat appeared to have concluded on a similar note.

After the Obama-Cameron conversation, a BP official said that both sides seemed to be backing off a bit and that Wednesday's meeting now looks "more like constructive engagement rather than a public spanking."

Staff writers Anthony Faiola and Steve Mufson contributed to this report.

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