As the crude crept closer to Florida, the risky effort to contain the worst U.S. oil spill hit a snag Wednesday when a diamond-edged saw became stuck in a thick pipe on a blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the goal was to free the saw and finish the cut later in the day. This is the latest attempt to contain — not plug — the gusher. The best chance at stopping the leak is a relief well, which is at least two months from completion.
"I don't think the issue is whether or not we can make the second cut. It's about how fine we can make it, how smooth we can make it," Allen said.
If the cut is not as smooth as engineers would like, they would be forced to put a looser fitting cap on top of the oil spewing out. This cut-and-cap effort could temporarily increase the flow of oil by as much as 20 percent, though Allen said officials wouldn't know whether that had happened until the cut could be completed.
Engineers may have to bring in a second saw awaiting on a boat, but it was not immediately clear how long that could delay the operation. Live video showed oil spewing out of the new cut, and crews were shooting chemicals to try to disperse the crude. The cap could be placed over the spill as early as Wednesday.
The effort underwater was going on as oil drifted close to the northwestern Florida's white sand beaches for the first time and investors ran from BP's stock for a second day, reacting to the company's weekend failure to plug the leak by shooting mud and cement into the well, known as the top kill.
The Justice Department also has announced it started criminal and civil probes into the spill, although the department did not name specific targets for prosecution.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama said in prepared remarks that it was time to roll back billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil companies and use the money for clean energy research and development. He said the catastrophic Gulf oil spill shows the country must move toward clean energy, tapping natural gas and nuclear power and eliminating tax breaks for big oil.
Shares in British-based BP PLC were down 3 percent Wednesday morning in London trading after a 13 percent fall the day before, but regained some ground later Wednesday to close 0.35 percent down. BP has lost $75 billion in market value since the spill started with an April 20 oil rig explosion and analysts expect damage claims to total billions more.
In Florida, oil was about seven miles (11 kilometers) south of Pensacola beach, Allen said.
Emergency crews began scouring the beaches for oil and shoring up miles of boom, though choppy waters from thunderstorms could send the oil over the protective lines. County officials are using the boom to block oil from reaching inland waterways but plan to leave beaches unprotected because they are easier to clean up.
The oil has been spreading in the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded six weeks ago, killing 11 workers and eventually sinking. The rig was being operated for BP, the largest oil and gas producer in the Gulf.
Allen, the national incident commander for the spill, said the threat of oil hitting the coast was shifting east and skimmer vessels would be working offshore to intercept as much crude as possible.
Earlier this week, BP officials said they were concentrating cleanup efforts in Louisiana because they did not expect oil to reach other states. The company has set up floating hotels on barges to house cleanup crews closer to the Louisiana shores.
In Venice, Louisiana, hundreds of oil response workers were grounded by storms and many local fishermen were sent home early.
More federal fishing waters were closed, too, another setback for one of the region's most important industries. More than one-third of federal waters were off-limits for fishing, along with hundreds of square miles of state waters.
BP has tried and failed repeatedly to halt the flow of the oil, and the latest attempt like others has never been tried before a mile beneath the ocean. Experts warned it could be even riskier than the others because slicing open the 20-inch (51-centimeter) riser could unleash more oil if there was a kink in the pipe that restricted some of the flow.
Bluestein reported from Covington, Louisiana. Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Pete Yost from Washington, Curt Anderson from Miami, Kevin McGill in Schriever, Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Floirda, Brian Skoloff in Port Fourchon, Mary Foster in Boothville, and Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans also contributed to this report.