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updated 7/1/2010 10:59:14 AM ET 2010-07-01T14:59:14

BP's massive oil spill became the largest ever in the Gulf of Mexico by Thursday based on the highest of the federal government's estimates, an ominous record that underscores the oil giant's dire need to halt the gusher.

The oil that's spewed for two and a half months from a blown-out well a mile under the sea hit the 140.6 million gallon mark, eclipsing the record-setting, 140-million-gallon Ixtoc I spill off Mexico's coast from 1979 to 1980. Even by the lower end of the government's estimates, at least 71.7 million gallons are in the Gulf.

The growing total is crucial to track — in part because U.K.-based BP is likely to be fined per gallon spilled, said Larry McKinney, director of Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi's Gulf of Mexico research institute.

"It's an important number to know because it has an impact on restoration and recovery," McKinney said.

The oil calculation is based on the higher end of the government's range of barrels leaked per day, minus the amount BP says it has collected from the blown-out well using two containment systems.

Measuring it helps scientists figure out where the missing oil is, hidden below the water surface with some even stuck to the seafloor. Oil not at the surface damages different parts of the ecosystem.

"It's a mind-boggling number any way you cut it," said Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental studies professor who consults for the federal government on oil spills. "It'll be well beyond Ixtoc by the time it's finished."

And passing Ixtoc just before the July Fourth weekend, a time of normally booming tourism, is bitter timing, he said.

However the BP spill, which began after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion killed 11 workers April 20, is not the biggest in history. That happened when Iraqi forces opened valves at a terminal and dumped as much as 336 million gallons of oil in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Initial estimates put that spill at about 460 million gallons, but government estimates later found it to be smaller.

'Whale' oil skimmer to the rescue?
As the Gulf gusher neared the record, Hurricane Alex whipped oil-filled waves onto the Gulf Coast's once-white beaches.

A huge new piece of equipment — the world's largest oil-skimming vessel — arrived in the Gulf Wednesday.

Dubbed "A Whale," the Taiwanese-flagged former tanker spans the length of 3½ football fields and is 10 stories high. It is claimed the ship can scoop up to 21 million gallons of oil-fouled water a day, but it is untested and the Coast Guard must decide whether it can be used.

It just emerged from an extensive retrofitting to prepare it specifically for the Gulf. "It is absolutely gigantic. It's unbelievable," said Overton, who saw the ship last week in Norfolk, Va.

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The vessel looks like a typical tanker, but it takes in contaminated water through 12 vents on either side of the bow. The oil is then supposed to be separated from the water and transferred to another vessel. The water is channeled back into the sea.

However the ship has never been tested and many questions remain about how it will operate. For instance, the seawater retains trace amounts of oil, even after getting filtered, so the Environmental Protection Agency will have to sign off on allowing the treated water back into the Gulf.

"This is a no-brainer," Overton said. "You're bringing in really dirty, oily water and you're putting back much cleaner water."

The Coast Guard will have the final say in whether the vessel can operate in the Gulf and the owner, shipping firm TMT Group, will have to come to separate terms with BP, which is paying for the cleanup.

"I don't know whether it's going to work or not, but it certainly needs to be given the opportunity," Overton said.

Meanwhile along parts of the Gulf, red flags snapped in strong gusts, warning people to stay out of the water, and long stretches of beach were stained brown from tar balls and crude oil that had been pushed as far as 60 yards from the water.

Hurricane disruptions
Hurricane Alex churned up rough seas as it plowed across the Gulf, dealing a tough setback to cleanup operations. It made landfall along a relatively unpopulated stretch of coast in Mexico's northern Tamaulipas state late Wednesday, spawning tornadoes in nearby Texas and forcing evacuations in both countries.

Oil deposits appeared worse than in past days and local officials feared the temporary halt to skimming operations near the coast would only make matters worse ahead of the holiday weekend.

"I'm real worried about what is going to happen with those boats not running. It can't help," said Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach, Ala.

Although skimming operations and the laying of oil-corralling booms were halted across the Gulf, vessels that collect and burn oil and gas at the site of the explosion were still operating. Efforts to drill relief wells that experts hope will stop the leak also continued unabated.

BP said some oil skimming and booming operations had been restarted early Thursday.

In Florida, lumps of tar the size of dinner plates filled a large swath of beach east of Pensacola after rough waves tossed the mess onto shore.

Streaks of the rust-red oil could be seen in the waves off Pensacola Beach as cleanup crews worked in the rough weather to prepare the beach for the holiday weekend.

In Grand Isle, La., heavy bands of rain pounded down, keeping cleanup crews off the water and tossing carefully laid boom around. However, oil had stayed out of the passes.

"All this wave action is breaking up the oil very quickly," Coast Guard Cmdr. Randal S. Ogrydziak said. "Mother Nature is doing what she does best, putting things back in order."

Natural microbes in the water were also working on the spill. The result was a white substance that looked like mayonnaise, that washed up on some spots along the Grand Isle beach.

"People will be fishing here again," Ogrydziak said. "It may take a while, but people may be surprised that it's not taking as long as they thought. Look at the (Ixtoc) oil spill in Mexico. It was massive and now people are back to using those waters."

In related developments:

  • Senior government officials will meet with President Barack Obama on Thursday to review the Gulf of Mexico oil spill situation and containment plans going forward, the Coast Guard said.
  • Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is working hard to finalize a new moratorium on deep-water offshore drilling that would affect exploratory wells at 500 feet or deeper after a federal court blocked the Obama administration's previously announced six-month ban. Salazar would not say when the new moratorium would be issued.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday voted to eliminate limits on liability that oil companies would face for oil spill damages. The measure now goes before the full Senate. It also would need to win passage in the House of Representatives before becoming law. Oil companies currently have a $75 million cap for compensating local communities for economic losses and cleaning up environmental damage. The change, if approved and enacted into law, would apply retroactively to BP.
  • Initial tests of the dispersant BP is using to break up oil in the Gulf of Mexico show that it does not harm endocrine systems in aquatic life, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
  • Environmental groups filed suit against BP seeking to halt controlled burnings of spilled oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico because they say endangered sea turtles are being burned alive in the process.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Hurricane pushes more oil onto beaches

  1. Transcript of: Hurricane pushes more oil onto beaches

    MATT LAUER, co-host: The dozens of oil cleanup vessels sidelined by the ripple effects from the storm are expected to get back to work today, as the disaster in the gulf is expected to surpass the 140 million gallon mark. NBC 's chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson is in Venice , Louisiana . Anne , good morning to you.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good morning, Matt. Well, they're going to try to get back to work today, but things don't look very good for that. The storm has already cost cleanup workers here two days of effort, and it looks like it will cost them a lot more. As one Coast Guard official says, `We are being held hostage by the weather.' Yesterday they had to pull in all 510 skimmers off the water because the seas are just too rough to get any kind of work done. And then out at the spill site, a lightning strike shut down the Discoverer Enterprise . That is one of the the at ships that collects oil, about 15,000 barrels a day. It shut -- a lightning strike shut down that ship for about three hours. Now, there is a little good news here. The EPA announced its results of first -- its first round of tests of dispersants. And it tested eight kinds of dispersants, and it found that they were all equally toxic. But -- and they were all equally less toxic than the oil, including the controversial Corexit 9500, which is the dispersant that BP has used throughout this crisis, spraying about a million gallons to break up the oil. But again, we are under a coastal flood watch here. Rain is expected all day, and that's going to hamper the cleanup efforts. Matt :

    LAUER: All right, Anne Thompson . Anne , thank you very much from Venice , Louisiana . It's now six minutes after the hour. Once again, here's Meredith .

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  5. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion
  6. Image: Hurricane Alex first major hurricane of the season
    Obed Campos Guzman / EPA
    Slideshow (12) Alex slams the coast

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