WASHINGTON — BP is planning to burn as much as 10,000 barrels of crude a day captured from the Deepwater Horizon well in an effort to maximize the amount of oil that can be recovered by ships currently floating above the spewing well.
Flaring between 5,000 and 10,000 barrels a day will help BP and the Coast Guard continue pulling oil from the Gulf of Mexico even if the amount of crude surpasses the 15,000 to 18,000 barrel per day capacity of the Discoverer Enterprise, the drill ship that currently is taking on crude through a "top hat" containment device that was placed on the well's blowout preventer last week.
A second rig, the Q4000, which will pull oil directly from the well's damaged blowout preventer, is being fitted with equipment that will allow it to flare both crude and natural gas. Those modifications should be completed in two or three days.
A Coast Guard official familiar with the plan said late Wednesday that he didn't know whether the Environmental Protection Agency had signed off on the plan, though he thought it likely that the agency had been consulted. "We are joined at the hip with the EPA," he said.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point man on the Deepwater Horizon spill, confirmed that flaring equipment was being added to the Q4000 during his daily briefing with reporters Wednesday.
Burning the oil is critical to resolving what has become an increasingly obvious problem with the current recovery efforts at the Deepwater Horizon site — that far more oil is pouring from the well than the Discoverer Enterprise's ability to handle it.
A government panel of experts has estimated that at least 12,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil are leaking from the well daily, and probably much more. One scientist told McClatchy on Monday that he thinks the well may be spewing as much as 100,000 barrels a day.
Officials acknowledged Wednesday that they had recovered "a little more than 15,000 barrels" in the previous 24 hours — the maximum amount that they'd previously said the Discoverer Enterprise could process in a day. Allen said Wednesday that officials now think the Discoverer Enterprise might be able to handle as much as 18,000 barrels a day.
With video showing clouds of oil and natural gas still billowing into the water, however, that additional 3,000 barrels seems unlikely to dent the leak.
The Q4000 has been pressed into service on two other occasions in fighting the Deepwater Horizon spill, once to lower a 78-ton containment dome to the seafloor and then again late last month when it served as the platform for pumping thousands of barrels of drilling fluid into the well's blowout preventer in the failed "top kill" procedure.
Once flaring equipment is installed, the Q4000 will pull oil from the blowout preventer through the same pipes that it used to pump the drilling lubricants into the well during the unsuccessful "top kill" effort. Allen said at least 5,000 of that will be burned when it reaches the surface and that he hopes to have the ability to recover 28,000 barrels a day between the two vessels.
The Coast Guard official said the goal was to be able to continue to pull as much oil from the Gulf as possible without having to worry about offloading the oil to drilling barges — something that would have been a frequent need given the Q4000's limited storage capacity.
"The goal," he said, "is to remove as much oil as possible."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy's oil spill coverage.