NEW ORLEANS — Underpromising with hopes of overdelivering, BP said Sunday that it is making progress on what could prove its most effective effort yet to contain the Gulf oil leak, but cautioned that the verdict could be several days away.
A new cap being placed atop the gusher is intended to provide a tight seal and might eventually allow the oil giant to capture all the crude leaking from the well for the first time since an April 20 oil rig explosion set off the environmental crisis. But several prior failed attempts to stop the leak have made BP PLC careful to keep expectations grounded.
"We're pleased with our progress," said BP senior vice president Kent Wells, who then hastened to add that the operation was still expected to last up to six more days.
Asked during a conference call if the new cap and collection efforts would end the spilling of oil into the Gulf, Wells said only that BP will capture all the oil "at some point."
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Wells said BP may have to bring another vessel back online and add additional collection capacity in order to stop the oil flow altogether.
Officials won't be satisfied the cap is working until they've run tests on whether it can withstand the tremendous pressure of oil pushing up from below the seafloor, Wells said.
"We've tried to work out as many of the bugs as we can. The challenge will come with something unexpected," he said.
The well has been gushing largely unchecked since an old, leaky cap was removed from the wellhead Saturday to make way for the new one. Between 88 million and 174 million gallons have already spilled into the Gulf, according to federal estimates.
Wary Gulf residents reserved judgment about BP's latest effort and said the damage already done to the environment, fishing and tourism will haunt the region for a long time either way.
"At this point, there have been so many ups and downs, disappointments, that everybody down here is like, 'We'll believe it when we see it,' " said Keith Kennedy, a charter boat captain in Venice, La.
Robotic submarines finished removing a busted piece of pipe that was bolted around the leak around 3 a.m. Sunday. That paved the way for the installation of a pipe-like connector called a flange spool that will sit on top of the spewing well bore. The new cap would be mounted on top of that connector and have flexible pipes leading up to surface ships.