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Cap maneuvered into place onto undersea oil gusher

PANAMA CITY BEACH — As the Obama administration issued a fresh moratorium on deep-water offshore drilling Monday, robots maneuvered a new, tighter-fitting cap onto a gushing oil well and BP prepared to test whether its latest effort would finally stop crude from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

The company expected to finish latching on the cap to the leaking well late Monday, and two days’ worth of tests on its effectiveness could begin Tuesday, BP Chief Operation Officer Doug Suttles told reporters Monday afternoon, when the cap was 40 feet from the well.

“We’re taking this step by step, making sure absolutely everything is in place before we do it,’’ he said.

Suttles described Monday as the third day of a four- to seven-day operation to secure the new cap over the spill’s source, after the previous, looser cap was removed Saturday.

That cap helped collect about 1 million gallons of oil a day, but more crude continued to leak from the well. The new cap is designed to hold 2.5 million to 3.4 million gallons a day.

Without any cap, an estimated 1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons of black crude oozes into the Gulf daily. Federal officials have estimated 88 million to 174 million gallons of oil have streamed into the Gulf’s waters since April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers and triggering the spill.

The new cap, which weighs more than 150,000 pounds, was being positioned over the leak slowly to keep icy crystals called hydrates from forming inside the cap. Hydrates, which form when gas and water mix at low temperatures and high pressure, as occurs at the bottom of the sea, have derailed past efforts to stop the leak by making containment domes too buoyant and preventing a tight seal.

Suttles said BP designed the latest cap with a mechanism that allows the company to pump in glycol, a chemical that works as an antifreeze, to keep the hydrates at bay.

Once the cap is attached to the well, pipelines that connect it to ships collecting oil on the surface will remain connected. But BP will shut off the valves to those pipes to see if the cap on its own is sealing off the leaky well.

The company will be able to tell if the cap is working if there are high pressure readings inside it, indicating oil is being contained at the leak source. Lower pressure could mean the well has another leak somewhere else.

If the cap works, the broken well head would still be leaking. But the cap would let BP capture all the oil and funnel it to the surface ships.

To permanently shut down the oil site, BP continues to drill two relief wells that would allow the company to pump in heavy drilling mud and cement to plug the leak. The first well may not be ready until mid-August.

Miami Herald staff writer Figueroa reported from Panama City Beach. Staff writers Mazzei and Howard Cohen reported from Miami. This report was supplemented with information from The Associated Press.