NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, July 10, 2010 (AFP) - Energy giant BP was expected Saturday to try and place a better cap over its gushing well in the Gulf of Mexico to stop the devastating oil flow.
Admiral Thad Allen, who oversees the government's spill response, said late Friday he had approved the plan to simultaneously install the Helix Producer and "capping stack" containment mechanisms over the well.
However, the operation will require temporary suspension of the current top hat containment system.
This means about 15,000 barrels of oil a day that had been collected through the old capping system will spew directly into the Gulf until the new cap is in place.
"I validated this plan because the capacity for oil containment when these installations are complete will be far greater than the capabilities we have achieved using current systems," Allen explained.
He said favorable weather was expected in the spill area over the coming days, which "will provide the working conditions necessary for these transitions to be successfully completed without delays."
The transition to this new containment infrastructure could begin in the next days but will take seven to 10 days to complete, the admiral said.
If successful, the new cap could capture all of the crude spilling into the Gulf and allow it to be siphoned up to container vessels on the surface.
This in effect would halt the crude spill that has imperiled fragile coastlines and wildlife across the Gulf Coast.
The operation is the latest attempt to contain the spill that was sparked by the April 20 explosion aboard the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
Under a timeline released by BP, the relief well that would permanently seal the leak would be completed by August 13.
BP also provided Allen with a list of backup plans if the new containment cap takes longer to install than anticipated or not work as officials hope.
These include the stationing of nearly 400 boats between the Deepwater Horizon site and the Gulf Coast and more than 50 aircraft to spot and scoop up the additional oil that would flow into the Gulf.
Earlier, Allen said he was optimistic about a quick fix.
"We have a significant chance to dramatically reduce the oil that's being released into the environment and maybe shut the well in altogether in the next week," he told CNN Friday.
The White House has pushed for the new containment device because its superior seal is expected to capture the entire leak and is better equipped to deal with a hurricane threat in the storm-prone Gulf.
Crews have already seen clean-up and containment operations hampered by bad weather and with an active storm season predicted, officials are busy developing contingencies.
The new system will use "quick-disconnect couplings" allowing container ships to shut down operations and exit the area quickly in the face of a hurricane, Allen said.
The news comes just after President Barack Obama's administration lost a bid to lift a stay of its six-month freeze on deepwater drilling in the Gulf.
Current government estimates of the spill range from between 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, based on interpretation of a live video feed of the leak.
An estimated two to four million barrels of oil have gushed into the Gulf waters since the spill began, and a permanent solution is not expected until one of two relief wells is completed.
Oil has now washed up on beaches in all five Gulf states -- Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- forcing the closure of fishing grounds and threatening scores of coastal communities with financial ruin.
The spill prompted the Obama administration to order a moratorium on deepwater drilling, but the freeze was overturned by a federal court last month and an appeals court upheld that ruling on Thursday.
The government "made no showing that there is any likelihood that drilling activities will be resumed pending appeal," the court said.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he will soon issue a new order to block deepwater drilling, regardless of how the court ruled, and that oil companies have not resumed drilling due to the legal uncertainties.