BP starts work to install new seabed cap

HOUSTON/PORT SULPHUR, Louisiana (Reuters) - BP Plc removed a containment cap from its stricken Gulf of Mexico oil well on Saturday in the first step toward installing a bigger cap to contain all the crude gushing into the sea and fouling the coast.

Remote operating vehicles (ROV) are pictured at work during the early phase of "top hat" removal operations at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico, in this frame grab captured from a BP live video feed July 10, 2010. BP was set on Saturday to install a bigger cap that could contain almost all the oil leaking from its blown-out Gulf of Mexico well, a top U.S. official said. REUTERS/BP/Handout

The maneuver released a torrent of oil that will spew unrestrained into the Gulf for four to seven days -- the time BP says it will take to put in place a bigger cap and seal. Officials say the new cap would capture all the oil leaking from the well and funnel it one mile upward to vessels on the water’s surface.

The new solution, 82 days into the worst oil spill in U.S. history, would not allow crude to billow out the bottom and the top, as the current cap does, said Kent Wells, senior vice president of exploration and production for BP.

“The difference is one completely seals and the other didn’t,” Wells said.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the U.S. response to the spill, had said the cap switch could be finished by late Sunday or Monday. BP’s plan, which Allen approved late Friday, showed a four- to seven-day process.

Wells said on Saturday the longer stretch allows for unexpected problems. He also said BP has another cap ready to install if the new, bolted-on cap and seal don’t work.

BP was also hooking up and testing a third vessel in hopes that it could begin siphoning crude late on Sunday.

The two procedures are part of BP’s effort to upgrade its oil-capture system with four vessels that can handle up to 80,000 barrels of oil a day and disconnect and move quickly if a hurricane approaches.

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The prospect of finally stopping the flow of oil was potentially good news for coastal residents who have been watching the sticky black crude soil beaches in every one of the five U.S. states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The spill has killed birds, sea turtles and dolphins and cut into multibillion-dollar fishing, tourist and drilling industries, at a time of high U.S. unemployment.

But in the flat, green stretch of southeastern Louisiana where cattle graze and Gulf oil derricks dot the horizon, some residents said they had not heard about the new cap.

They had heard about the Obama administration’s ban on new drilling, an important employer in the area, and opposed it.

“Just because you have this tragic incident, you can’t stop. That’s a lot of people without jobs,” said Leah Fannin, 32, who was helping a group of truckers, including her husband, load cattle onto trailers.

Fannin’s cousin, Stephen Ray Curtis, was one of the 11 men killed after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20. A memorial service was planned for him Sunday.

The spill has taken its place firmly atop President Barack Obama’s domestic agenda, and complicated the U.S. relationship with close ally Britain, while subjecting Obama to fierce criticism that his handling of the disaster has been too slow and too easy on the British oil giant as he seeks to pass major legislation like financial regulatory reform and an energy bill.

Making the case that it is on top of the problem, Washington pressed BP to take advantage of an upcoming window of good weather in the Gulf to attempt to install the new cap.

The administration also went to court to defend the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf it imposed to allow time for an investigation of the explosion that triggered the spill.

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A federal appeals court panel on Thursday declined its request to reinstate the ban after a lower court had ordered it lifted. Drilling companies had argued that the moratorium was too broad and would unfairly cripple their industry, at a cost of many jobs.

Government officials said on Friday they would announce a new, modified deepwater oil drilling moratorium within the next several days.

Mostly, the people living with the effects of the spill said they had no idea what to expect in the weeks and months to come, even if the new containment cap works.

Freddy Danos, who normally runs a sport fishing boat out of Venice, Louisiana, but now is using his vessel to help wildlife affected by the spill, said he hoped the cap would work.

“We don’t know what the future’s going to bring -- even after they get it contained,” he said.

“We just don’t know.”

Writing by Patricia Zengerle, editing by Doina Chiacu