Well cap captures more oil, but outlook's gloomy
New Orleans: The cap on the blown-out well in the Gulf is capturing a half-million gallons a day, or anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of the oil spewing from the bottom of the sea, officials have claimed.
But the hopeful report was offset by a warning that the farflung slick has broken up into hundreds and even thousands of patches of oil that may inflict damage that could persist for years.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the crisis, said the breakup has complicated the cleanup.
"Dealing with the oil spill on the surface is going to go on for a couple of months," he said at a briefing in Washington. But "long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats and stuff will be years."
Allen said the containment cap that was installed late last week is now collecting about 460,000 gallons of oil a day out of the approximately 600,000 to 1.2 million gallons believed to be spewing from the well a mile underwater. In a tweet, BP said it collected 316,722 gallons from midnight to noon Monday.
The amount of oil captured is being slowly ramped up as more vents on the cap are closed. Crews are moving carefully to avoid a dangerous pressure buildup and to prevent the formation of the icy crystals that thwarted a previous effort to contain the leak. The captured oil is being pumped to a ship on the surface.
"I think it's going fairly well," Allen said.
BP said it plans to replace the cap — perhaps later this month or early next month — with a slightly bigger one that will provide a tighter fit and thus collect more oil. It will also be designed to allow the company to suspend the cleanup and then resume it quickly if a hurricane threatens the Gulf later this season. The new cap is still being designed.
"It gives us much better containment than we've got" with the existing cap, said BP senior vice president Kent Wells.
BP and government officials acknowledged it is difficult to say exactly how much oil is spewing from the well, and thus how much is still flowing into the water. BP spokesman Robert Wine said the figures being discussed are estimates, some of which have been provided by the government.
Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University professor of environmental sciences, suggested it is too early for anyone to claim victory. The spill, estimated at anywhere from 23 million gallons to 50 million, is already the biggest in U.S. history, dwarfing the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
"We're hopeful the thing is going to work, but hoping and actually working are two different things," Overton said. "They may have turned the corner, they may not have. We just don't know right now."
He said he doesn't believe BP will have turned the corner until it sees a significant flow from the well stopped. "And it is not entirely obvious to me that that is happening," Overton said.
"I do worry we are not removing as much oil as we ought to be getting," he added.
The "spillcam" video of the leak continued to show a big brown billowing cloud of oil and gas 5,000 feet below the surface.
In Washington, President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans that "we will get through this crisis."
Later, he said he's been talking closely with Gulf Coast fishermen and various experts on BP's catastrophic oil spill and not for lofty academic reasons.
"I talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers — so I know whose ass to kick," the president said.
The salty words, part of Obama's recent efforts to telegraph to Americans his engagement with the crisis, came in an interview in Michigan with NBC's "Today" show.
"This will be contained," he said earlier. "It may take some time, and it's going to take a whole lot of effort. There is going to be damage done to the Gulf Coast, and there is going to be economic damages that we've got to make sure BP is responsible for and compensates people for."
But in a forecast that was by turns hopeful and gloomy, Allen indicated that cleaning up the mess could prove to be more complex than previously thought.
"Because what's happened over the last several weeks, this spill has disaggregated itself," Allen said. "We're no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill. We're dealing with an aggregation of hundreds or thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different directions."
When finished, the new cap would be connected a riser pipe floating about 300 feet below the surface. Engineers say the riser would be deep enough to avoid damage from hurricanes that can roar over the Gulf of the Mexico, but shallow enough to allow returning drill ships to quickly reconnect to the flow.
Meanwhile, crews worked furiously to skim, scour and chemically disperse the substance from the water.