NEW ORLEANS – Efforts to contain the flood of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico showed signs of progress as a cap placed atop BP’s blown-out well managed to capture 6,000 barrels of oil in its first 24 hours, officials announced Saturday.
No one knows exactly how much is still spewing from the well, although estimates by a government task force before the well was capped ranged between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil daily.
The containment cap, the latest in a string of efforts to cope with the massive spill, is funneling oil and gas to a surface ship a mile above the well head.
But engineers are allowing most of the oil to continue escaping through four vents in the cap because the force of the flow could burst the rubber gasket that holds the cap in place.
“They’re making sure they don’t increase the production rate until it is safe to do so,” Coast Guard incident commander Adm. Thad Allen told reporters Saturday. “They’re easing the pressure up to the vessel … so they can maintain control of the oil.”
On Saturday afternoon, a BP spokesman said the company had no estimate as to when the vents would be closed. “Over the next few days we will be adjusting the cap to work as best as we can,” said Toby Odone.
The amount of oil pumped to the surface could be constrained, given that the surface ship can only receive 15,000 barrels daily, Odone acknowledged.
The company’s website, BP.com, continued to stream live video of the effort, prompting a cottage industry of engineers, drilling experts and amateur second-guessers to flood the Internet with critiques of the procedures and analyses of why the effort was not moving faster.
Allen emphasized that the containment cap is only a partial solution, never intended to permanently plug the leak. That can only happen once a relief well intercepts the original well, allowing it to be cemented. Two relief wells are now being drilled but will not be finished before August. That could be delayed into the fall if hurricanes interrupt the operation.
The April 20 blowout, which occurred 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, has led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It is expected to contaminate shores from Louisiana to Florida, damage undersea life with plumes of oil, and could eventually pollute parts of the Atlantic Coast.
In Louisiana on Saturday, specialists stepped up efforts to rescue oil-contaminated wildlife as concerns mounted that the population of Louisiana brown pelicans, which only recently bounced back from near extinction, could once again be destabilized.
The number of birds collected by wildlife teams has doubled in the past two days to 724. Most were dead.