NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A tropical storm churning in the Caribbean could be the latest bad news for BP crews trying to contain and clean up the massive oil spill in the Gulf, an effort that has been plagued by setbacks for more than two months.
It is still too early to tell exactly where Tropical Storm Alex might go, or how it might affect oil on and below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters said. An armada of ships is working on the spill. That includes those drilling two relief wells, projected to be done by mid-August, which are the best hope for halting the crude that has been gushing since an April 20 explosion touched off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
BP's effort to drill through 2½ miles of rock is on target, the oil giant said Friday. But BP's stock tumbled anyway over the mounting costs of the disaster and the company's inability to plug the leak sooner.
The crew that has been drilling the relief well since early May ran a test to confirm it is on the right path, using a tool that detects the magnetic field around the casing of the original, blown-out well.
"The layman's translation is, 'We are where we thought we were,"' said BP spokesman Bill Salvin. Once the new well intersects the ruptured one, BP plans to pump heavy drilling mud in to stop the oil flow and plug it with cement.
Despite the encouraging news, BP stock tumbled 6 percent in New York on Friday to a 14-year low on news that BP has now spent $2.35 billion dealing with the disaster.
BP has lost more than $100 billion in market value since its deep-water drilling platform blew up, and its stock is worth less than half the $60 or so it was selling for on the day of the explosion.
If the bad weather heads toward the Gulf, it could add to BP's problems.
Forecasters can't say yet if Alex - which blew into a tropical storm early Saturday - will hit the northeastern part of the Gulf, where the spill has spread over the past 10 weeks.
Somewhere between 69 million and 132 million gallons of crude have spewed into the water since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.
Most storm prediction models show it traveling over the Yucatan Peninsula over the weekend and into the southern Gulf by Monday. Where it goes next is the question.
Jack Bevins, a forecaster with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said early prediction models Saturday morning no longer had it going across the oil spill. But Alex's track could quickly change in the coming days as conditions shift.
The effort to capture the oil gushing from the sea bottom could be interrupted for up to two weeks if a storm forces BP to move its equipment out of harm's way, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the crisis.
BP would need about five days to secure or move all its equipment to safety from an approaching storm but is working to shorten that to two days, Salvin said. The equipment includes ships that are processing the oil sucked up by the containment cap on the well and the rigs drilling the two relief wells.
In other news:
- A financial disclosure report released Friday shows that the Louisiana judge who struck down the Obama administration's six-month ban on deep-water drilling in the Gulf has sold many of his energy investments. U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman still owns eight energy-related investments, including stock in Exxon Mobil Corp. Among the assets he sold was stock in Transocean, which owned the rig that exploded. The Justice Department asked a federal appeals court Friday to delay Feldman's ruling "to preserve the status quo" during the government's appeal.
- Vice President Joe Biden will head to the Gulf on Tuesday to visit a command center in New Orleans and the oil-fouled Florida Panhandle.
- The IRS said payments for lost wages from BP's $20 billion victims compensation fund are taxable just like regular income. Payments for physical injuries or property loss are generally tax-free.
- BP is capturing anywhere from 840,000 to 1.2 million gallons of oil a day. Worst-case government estimates say 2.5 million gallons a day are leaking from the well, though no one really knows for sure.
- BP is working to develop a different containment system that would be easier to disconnect and hook back up if a storm interrupted the work.