Special Reports

New oil containment cap ahead of schedule (with photo galleries)

MIAMI — The first hint of a nearing end to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was voiced Friday by the Coast Guard admiral in charge there.

By July 15, a new, better cap might replace the present leaky cap on the broken well — temporarily containing all of the oil, said Adm. Thad Allen.

And the relief well counted on to permanently seal the oil leak is a week ahead of its early-August schedule, he said.

If the new cap works, it could capture up to 80,000 barrels of oil a day. Current estimates of the spewing oil are 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, so it all might be contained, Allen said.

The new system would involve cutting away the current cap on the well, which is poorly fitted and uses a rubber seal that lets thousands of gallons a day of oil spew into the Gulf. It would be replaced by a thick steel cap that would be bolted on. It would connect to four riser pipes that would go up to four containment vessels on the surface.

A decision about whether to go ahead with the new cap will be made in about a week, Allen said. One consideration is to compute how much longer it might take to disconnect such a complex new system if a hurricane approaches, he said. With the current setup, oil containment must be suspended 120 hours before gale force winds arrive.

BP spokesman Robert Wine confirmed that the new collection cap, if successful, might temporarily stop the entire flow of oil.

“We had been asked to come up with a plan to create extra capacity and duplication so that if something happened to one (surface collecting) vessel, we could keep producing,” he said.

Allen also said BP’s efforts to drill a relief well to permanently close the leaking well are seven or eight days ahead of their August schedule, and within about 600 feet of the well at 11,817 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Workers are drilling about 15 feet at a time, then backing off the drill to take new readings to make sure they are on target.

A second relief well is at 7,775 feet.

Once drillers reach the pipe in the blown-out well, they will need two to five days to bore into it, pump in enough heavy mud to overpower the upward pressure of the spewing oil, then pump in concrete to seal it permanently, Allen said.

Also on Friday, NOAA released a “Long-Term Oil Threat” model that shows a 61 to 80 percent probability that oil will reach beaches in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the Florida Keys if the spill goes on for 90 days. The potential is largely because of the Loop Current that runs from the Gulf of Mexico through the keys past South Florida.

The model also showed a zero to 20 percent probability for the west coast of Florida and from eastern central Florida up the Eastern Seaboard.