BP to begin burning off some collected oil

HOUSTON (Reuters) - BP Plc will begin burning up to 10,000 barrels a day of oil from its Gulf of Mexico leak possibly as early as Monday, a company executive said on Thursday.

The British energy giant is collecting oil spewing from its blown-out seabed well through a containment cap and plans to test a second system to capture more oil over the weekend, Kent Wells, BP’s senior vice president of exploration and production, said in a telephone briefing.

Wells said the company could start burning off oil “perhaps as early as Monday” as part of its effort to contain a spill that has soiled 120 miles of U.S. Gulf coastline and threatens multibillion-dollar fishing and tourist industries.

BP said on Thursday the cap system atop the well collected 15,800 barrels (660,000 gallons/2.5 million liters) of oil on Wednesday, a small increase over the 15,010 barrels captured on Tuesday.

That oil is being channeled through a pipe to a Transocean Ltd drillship a mile above on the water’s surface. It can then be offloaded from the ship to a tanker for transport to shore.

The drillship can process up to 18,000 barrels of oil a day, according to BP. The company said the second system was intended to increase collection capability to about 28,000 barrels a day.

On Thursday, U.S. government scientists released their latest estimate of how much oil spewed from the leak before a pipe was cut to make way for the containment cap to be installed last week.

The Flow Rate Technical Group revised its previous estimate of 12,000 barrels (504,000 gallons/1.9 million liters) to 19,000 barrels (798,000 gallons/3 million liters) a day to as low as 20,000 barrels (840,000 gallons/3.18 million liters) and as high as 40,000 barrels (1.68 million gallons/6.36 million liters) a day.

The team has yet to estimate how much oil leaked after the pipe was cut on June 3.

The new BP system will use the same equipment employed during a failed effort to smother the leak last month,

But instead of pumping drilling fluid into the well through a failed blowout preventer, it will pull up to 10,000 barrels (420,000 gallons/1.6 million liters) of oil a day from the well to a floating service rig on the ocean surface.

BP is installing a flare boom on the rig to burn off the oil at sea, Wells said.

The rig has no processing or storage capability, and Wells said BP determined that it was unsafe to bring more tankers to the area, which is already crowded with vessels involved in the containment effort.

“It was going to become too congested,” Wells said. “It was not the safest way to do this.”

Allen said that 25 to 30 vessels were in the vicinity of the spill at any given time.

Those vessels include rigs drilling a pair of relief wells intended to help permanently plug the well, a vessel running underwater robots at the seabed, a tanker to ship oil from the drillship to shore, and support vessels.

The cap system has collected a total of 73,324 barrels (3,080,000 gallons/11,660,000 liters) since it was installed last week, according to BP figures. An undetermined amount of oil continues to escape from the cap into the ocean.

The cap system is BP’s most successful effort so far to corral the leak, which began after Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in April, killing 11 workers.

Editing by Peter Cooney