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Gulf oil spill: BP may begin pumping oil to surface

June 4, 2010 |  7:36 am

A cap placed atop a gushing well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico could allow BP officials to begin pumping oil to the surface later Friday, the Coast Guard admiral leading the response to the disaster said, but he warned that strong winds had sent oil surging to the Florida Panhandle and had split the disaster into several slicks that would strain the resources available to clean them up.

“The scope of this thing is starting to extend to the point where it’s rather unprecedented,” Adm. Thad Allen said at a morning briefing that underscored the delicate nature of the containment effort underway a mile beneath the sea, and the threats that could derail it.

President Obama was due to make his third visit to the region, where previous failed attempts to stop the spill have enraged local residents and politicians and led to demands for the government to approve alternative measures, such as the building of sand berms off the coast to soak up oil.

A containment cap was put in place late Thursday after the mangled pipe atop the wellhead was cut off. But before BP can begin pumping oil up to a ship, it must slowly close valves on the cap to prevent water from mixing with the oil, something that could affect the cap’s effectiveness.

This must be done slowly to prevent a surge that could blow the gasket on the cap, which is sitting on the jagged edges of a pipe severed in a two-day operation that had to be suspended when the diamond-wire saw being used to cut through the pipe jammed. The shears used in lieu of the saw did not give the sharp-edged cut that officials had hoped would increase the efficiency of the cap.

Allen said a morning estimate from BP that it had been able to begin pumping some oil upward at a rate that would equal about 1,000 barrels a day should be taken as “a very, very rough estimate.” It will be hours before the valves are fully closed and officials know how well the plan has worked. In the meantime, oil continues to gush from the well.

He warned against over-optimism but said, “In general, progress is being made, and it looks like we may be able to go into production” later in the day.

Allen said southerly winds in the last 24 hours had pushed the oil up to the Panhandle of Florida and was endangering the coasts of Alabama and Mississippi, in addition to Louisiana. As the spill proliferates into smaller spills, all moving in different directions, Allen said it would strain efforts to place booms and skimmer boats in the water to catch oil. He also emphasized the need to stop the oil before it swallowed marshland, a situation he called “vexing.” “There is no good solution when oil enters a marshland,” said Allen.

-- Tina Susman