BP hopes for end to Gulf oil nightmare after fitting new cap

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, July 13, 2010 (AFP) - Oil giant BP hoped Tuesday to finally stem the catastrophic flow of toxic crude in the Gulf of Mexico as it tested a new tighter-fitting cap attached to the gushing well.

The test, according to BP, will last from six to 48 hours "or more depending on the measurements that are observed," said Admiral Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard chief who is leading the US government's response to the crisis.

This still image from a live BP video feed shows the closeup of the sealing cap over a gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico on July 10, 2010. AFP

Robotic submarines earlier pierced the near darkness 1.6 kilometers down on the sea floor with special lights and relayed live pictures of the operation that could be the beginning of the end of the disaster after 13 long weeks.

With the "Top Hat 10" attached to the leaking pipe, engineers aim next to close valves on the gigantic 75-tonne system and start taking readings as its pressure sensors bear the full brunt of the massive gusher.

"It is expected, although cannot be assured, that no oil will be released to the ocean for the duration of the test," BP said, adding however that that would not indicate whether the flow had permanently stopped.

If the pressure readings are high enough, BP officials have suggested the valves will be kept shut, effectively sealing the well.

But if they are too low, that would indicate a leak somewhere in the casing of the well, which extends four kilometers (2.5 miles) below the sea floor.

"We need to make sure that the flow can't come around the well bore rather than through the well bore," BP's chief operating officer Doug Suttles said.

Allen stressed that "significant progress has been made on the capping stack installation" ahead of the test process.

"The measurements that will be taken during this test will provide valuable information about the condition of the well below the sea level and help determine whether or not it is possible to shut the well for a period of time, such as during a hurricane or bad weather, between now and when the relief wells are complete," Allen added.

An estimated 2.1 to 4.1 million barrels of oil has gushed into the sea since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon sank spectacularly on April 22, two days after a deadly explosion.

Oil has washed up on beaches in all five Gulf states -- Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- forcing fishing grounds to be closed and threatening scores of coastal communities with financial ruin.

And as the vital operations continued at the well site some 80 kilometers (50 miles) off the coast of Louisiana, the pain for Gulf residents was being laid bare in front of a presidential commission in New Orleans.

Despite the endgame under way in the Gulf, there was little optimism at a hearing as victims struggled to come to terms with the damage inflicted by what could be the world's biggest ever oil spill.

"Even if BP caps this well tomorrow they've done so much damage to the Gulf it's a strange consolation plan," said Darwin Bond Graham, a sociologist studying how New Orleans has recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

There was anger too at Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision to issue a new moratorium on deepwater drilling to ensure oil companies implement safety measures following the disaster with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu saying it could lead to the loss of 120,000 jobs in the state.

On a visit to Florida, First Lady Michelle Obama urged tourists not to abandon the region.

"There are still thousands of miles of beaches that have not been touched by the spill," she said.

An estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil has been gushing out of the ruptured well, though the "Top Hat 10" is expected to give a first precise estimate in the coming days.

In recent weeks much has been captured by a containment system and siphoned up to the surface. A new vessel the Helix Producer was attached on Monday, tripling the capacity of the system.

Officials say that even if the cap cannot seal the well, the capacity of the system will soon be sufficient to capture all the leaking crude.

Suttles said BP will regardless continue with the drilling of two relief wells to intercept and permanently plug the well.

The disaster has cost BP some 3.5 billion dollars (2.78 billion euros), although the petroleum giant's shares rose sharply on reports it was poised to sell some of its assets.

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