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New Estimates Put Oil Flow Rate Significantly Higher

Researchers studying the flow of oil from the blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico say as much as twice the amount of oil as previously thought may have been spewing into the sea.

U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt said Thursday that as many as 50,000 barrels — or 2.1 million gallons — of oil may have been flowing daily from the Deepwater Horizon well before the riser was cut on June 3 as part of BP's latest containment effort. No estimates were given for the amount of oil gushing from the well after the June 3 riser cut.

The government has previously estimated that 12,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil — or 504,000 to 1.05 million gallons a day — had been leaking from the well before the riser cut.

The U.S. official overseeing the response to the spill, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, has asked BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg to meet with President Obama next week. It will be the first time Obama meets directly with BP officials since the rig explosion.

In a letter to Svanberg, Allen said the administration was "not going to rest or be satisfied until the leak is stopped at the source, the oil in the Gulf is contained and cleaned up, and the people of the Gulf are able to go back to their lives and their livelihoods."

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Administration officials said Thursday that BP has agreed to expedite its claims payments to Gulf Coast residents suffering economic hardship as a result of the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Tracey Wareing of the National Incident Command office said officials raised a "pressing concern" in meetings Wednesday about the amount of time it takes to process claims payments. She said BP will change the way it handles claims, including dropping the current practice of waiting to make such payments until businesses have closed their books for each month.

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BP also was urged to provide "clearer public information on the entire life cycle of the claims process," Wareing said at a news conference in Washington.

BP officials have been forced to defend the company's handling of individual claims to shrimpers, oystermen, seafood businesses, out-of-work drilling crews and the tourism industry — all of which have suffered as a result of the thick brown crude that has fouled the Gulf of Mexico and begun washing ashore in coastal communities.

"Every day, we call the adjuster eight or 10 times. There's no answer, no answering machine," said Regina Shipp, who has filed $33,000 in claims for lost business at her restaurant in Alabama. "If BP doesn't pay us within two months, we'll be out of business. We've got two kids."

But the company has acknowledged that while no claims have been denied, thousands and thousands had not been paid as of late last week because the company required more documentation.

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country stands ready to help BP with its cleanup efforts following the April 20 rig explosion that triggered the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Making his first public comments about the crisis, Cameron said he would raise the issue of British government assistance with President Obama when they next spoke.

"This is an environmental catastrophe. BP needs to do everything it can to deal with the situation, and the U.K. government stands ready to help," Cameron told reporters during a visit to Afghanistan.

"I completely understand the U.S. government's frustration. The most important thing is to try to mitigate the effects and get to grips with the problem. It's something I will discuss with the American president when we next talk."

As the scale of the disaster — its economic impact on Gulf states as well as damage to wildlife and delicate ecosystems — grows ever larger, Congress was stepping up scrutiny of the accident with hearings Thursday on the spill's short- and long-term impact on humans and animals.

Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that the White House will make sure that BP bears the full cost of cleanup and damages from the spill.

"I can take this pledge to the American people ... that BP will be held responsible for all damages that have occurred," Holder said at a Washington news conference. "We will take necessary steps to make sure that occurs."

Obama said after meeting with congressional leaders at the White House that U.S. legislation should be updated to make sure that the Gulf is "made whole." In an apparent reference to a $75 million cap on economic claims under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, Obama said he was "pleased to see bipartisan agreement" to deal with the crisis in a "forward-looking way."

Obama met Thursday with families of the 11 oil workers killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. At a news conference afterward, the relatives said they were satisfied the president and lawmakers would help them get just compensation for their losses.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president would return to the Gulf coast region early next week.

At the bottom of the sea, the containment cap on the leaking well is capturing 630,000 gallons a day and pumping it to a ship at the surface, and the amount could nearly double by next week to roughly 1.17 million gallons, the Coast Guard has said.

After Wednesday's steep losses, shares of BP rose more than 10 percent Thursday in New York as markets began to heed warnings from analysts who said the sell-off was an overreaction. But at $32.20, the shares are still trading at levels last seen 14 years ago.

The latest drop came after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised a Senate energy panel to ask BP to compensate energy companies for losses if they have to lay off workers or suffer economically because of the Obama administration's six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling.

BP has lost around half its market value since the spill began. In a federal filing Thursday, the company said the cost of its response to the oil spill has grown to $1.43 billion.