BP to install tighter cap on oil well

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing government efforts regarding the weeks-old oil spill, said the process could be complete in "three to four days" if all goes well.

In a letter to government officials on Friday, Bob Dudley, the head of BP's efforts to contain the spill, explained a timeline for how it will remove an existing containment cap that partially hinders the flow of oil into the water and replace it with one with a tighter fitting seal. The caps allow ships on the surface to suck off the oil and process it.

If successful, the multi-step process would allow the capture of more oil that is currently being estimated to flow into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since the April 20 rig explosion. The new cap could be in place as early as Monday.

But after the first cap is removed, oil will flow largely unhindered into the water until the new one can be put in place. As a result, efforts to skim and burn oil off the surface will be increased, Dudley said.

BP also plans to simultaneously hook up a third oil recovery ship, the Helix Producer, off-setting some of the effects of removing the cap.

The Helix Producer should be able to begin processing oil by Sunday and it along with two other ships will allow BP to increase the amount of oil captured to between 60,000-80,000 barrels a day - more than the estimate of how much oil is currently being spewed into the Gulf.

The details from BP came in response to a letter by Allen Thursday giving the British oil giant 24 hours to outline how it will proceed.

The cap on the wellhead needs to be swapped to make the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig more resilient in the event of a hurricane. The current cap on the well bore is loosely fitted and oil is being released around the rubber seal at the bottom.

The work to replace the cap is dependent on a forecast of seven to 10 days of clear weather, Allen told reporters Friday. Plans for swapping the cap and attaching the Helix Producer had earlier been delayed because of a tropical depression over the central Caribbean Sea.

Efforts to drill relief wells to allow the permanent capping of the leaking well are expected to completed in mid-August.

Oil has been gushing from the well since end-April, when the rig exploded and sank, causing the worst spill in US history that is leading to massive ecological degradation in the ocean and along the coastline of five Gulf states.

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