BP to test new cap on spewing Gulf oil well

BP is beginning tests to see if a new, tighter-fitting cap attached to a gushing oil well has completely stanched the flow of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

It could take six to 48 hours to find out if the latest, 150,000-pound metal cap can withstand pressure from the escaping oil and seal off the well while BP drills relief wells that would permanently plug the oil site.

The company latched on the 18-foot-high cap Monday in the third of what could be a seven-day process.

Things went extremely well,'' BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells told reporters Tuesday morning.

Now the company will test the cap by closing three separate valves and seeing if the cap chokes off the oil and blocks it from entering the Gulf.

That would build up pressure inside the cap and broken well head.

Everybody hope and pray that we see high pressures here,'' Wells said.

In Washington, the Obama administration Monday issued a fresh moratorium on deep-water drilling.

About 6:30 p.m. local time Monday in the Gulf 7:30 p.m. in South Florida live video cameras trained on the wellhead showed the cap being slowly lowered into place, 11 hours after BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said the company was close to putting the seal in place.

From the White House to Gulf Coast marinas and town halls, all eyes were on the slow, deliberate process unfolding a mile below the sea. President Barack Obama was getting repeated updates, his advisor David Axelrod, said. Residents on the coast were skeptical, though, and know that even if the gusher is contained, the disaster will be far from over.

BP doesn't want the flow of oil to stop instantaneously, said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of Professional Geosciences Programs at the University of Houston. Blocking the oil too quickly could cause another explosion, he said.

Rather than like a train running into a brick wall, it'll be more like putting the brakes on slowly,'' he said. That's what they're aiming for. You can keep the brakes on and everyone arrives alive, or you hit the wall and have big problems.''

Even if the cap works, the blown-out well will continue to leak. But the newer, tighter cap will enable BP to capture all the oil, or help funnel it up to ships on the surface if necessary.

Without any cap, an estimated 1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons of black crude spews 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.

The new cap was 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.

The latest federal moratorium will halt operations at any deep-water floating facility that performs drilling.

The government still needs time to make sure oil and gas companies implement safety measures to reduce risks and are ready to handle spills, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a statement announcing the measure, which will be effective through Nov. 30.

On May 30, Salazar ordered a six-month halt to drilling new wells deeper than 500 feet. Last week, a federal appeals court struck down the Obama administration's first moratorium as too heavy-handed for businesses and Gulf Coast state economies that would be harmed by the suspension.

The revised moratorium allows some drilling rigs to continue operating if they meet certain conditions, including proving that they have enough cleanup resources to respond to a potential spill.

Municipal officials and business leaders raised the same moratorium concerns to first lady Michelle Obama when she visited the Florida Panhandle Monday afternoon. She, in turn, urged tourists to visit Gulf Coast beaches free of tar balls.

There are still thousands of miles of beaches that have not been touched by the spill,'' she told about 100 people outside the Boardwalk Beach Resort in Panama City Beach, the white sand and emerald-green water glittering behind her. She later walked barefoot along the shore before visiting an ice cream parlor.

In South Florida, 45 pelican chicks drenched in sludge rescued from Louisiana's coastal waters were being treated at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami.

Three adult pelicans at the station, at 1279 NE 79th St., are tasked with teaching the chicks the ins and outs of growing up.

This is a really critical age for them,'' Kristin Castelln, the station's rehabilitation manager, said Monday. They need food, nutrition, and we have to limit human contact as much as possible, so we don't handle them or talk to them.''

Caretakers work with camouflage when feeding the birds. The flight and having oil coat their skins proved to be traumatic for them. But the adult pelicans, in general, accept the newborns as their own, Castelln said.

Some might be more nurturing than others,'' she added. We want them to be an example of how an adult pelican dives into a pool and eats.''

Miami Herald staff writer Laura Figueroa reported from Panama City Beach. Mazzei and Howard Cohen reported from Miami. Information from the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times was included in this report.