New cap on oil well, testing starts

PANAMA CITY BEACH — As the Obama administration issued a fresh moratorium on deep-water drilling Monday, robots maneuvered a new, tighter-fitting cap onto a gushing oil well and BP prepared to test whether its latest effort would at long last stop crude from oozing into the Gulf of Mexico.

The company expected to finish latching on the cap to the leaking well late Monday, and up to two days' worth of tests on its effectiveness could begin Tuesday, BP Chief Operation Officer Doug Suttles told reporters Monday afternoon, when the cap was 40 feet from the well.

We're taking this step by step, making sure absolutely everything is in place before we do it,'' he said.

Suttles described Monday as the third day of a four- to seven-day operation to secure the new cap over the spill's source, after the previous, looser cap was removed Saturday.

That cap helped collect about 1 million gallons of oil a day, but more crude continued to leak from the well. The new cap and four attached vessels collecting oil are designed to hold 2.5 million to 3.4 million gallons a day.

Without any cap, an estimated 1.5 million to 2.5 million gallons of black crude spews into the Gulf daily. Federal officials have estimated 88 million to 174 million gallons of oil have streamed into the Gulf's waters since April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers.

The new cap, which weighs more than 150,000 pounds, was being positioned over the leak slowly to keep icy crystals called hydrates from forming inside the cap. Hydrates, which form when gas and water mix at low temperatures and high pressure, as occurs at the bottom of the sea, have derailed past efforts to stop the leak by making containment domes too buoyant and preventing a tight seal.

Suttles said BP designed the latest cap with a mechanism that allows the company to pump in glycol, a chemical used as an antifreeze, to keep the hydrates at bay.

Once the cap is attached to the well, pipelines from the cap to ships collecting oil on the surface will remain connected. But BP will shut off valves to those pipes to see if the cap on its own is sealing off the leaky well.

The company will be able to tell if the cap is working if there are high pressure readings inside it, indicating oil is being contained at the leak source. Lower pressure could mean the well has another leak somewhere else.

If the cap works, the broken well head would still be leaking. But the cap would let BP capture all the oil and funnel it to the surface ships.

To permanently shut down the oil site, BP continues to drill two relief wells that would allow the company to pump in heavy drilling mud and cement to plug the leak. The first well may not be ready until mid-August.

Meanwhile, the latest federal moratorium will halt operations at any deep-water floating facility that performs drilling.

The government still needs time to make sure oil and gas companies implement safety measures to reduce risks and are ready to handle spills, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement announcing the measure, which will be effective through Nov. 30.

Salazar had issued a stop to drilling new wells deeper than 500 feet for six months on May 30. Last week, a federal appeals court struck down the administration's first moratorium as heavy-handed for businesses and Gulf Coast state economies that would be harmed by the suspension. The revised suspension allows some drilling rigs to continue operating if they meet certain conditions, including proving that they have enough cleanup resources to respond to a potential spill.

Municipal officials and business leaders raised the same moratorium concerns to First Lady Michelle Obama when she visited the Florida Panhandle Monday afternoon. Obama, in turn, urged tourists to Gulf Coast beaches free of tar balls.

There are still thousands of miles of beaches that have not been touched by the spill,'' she told about 100 people outside the Boardwalk Beach Resort in Panama City Beach, white sand and emerald-green water glittering behind her. Obama later walked barefoot along the shore before visiting an ice cream parlor.

In South Florida, 45 pelican chicks drenched in sludge rescued from Louisiana's coastal waters were being treated at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami.

Three adult pelicans at the station, at 1279 NE 79th St., are tasked with teaching the chicks the ins and outs of growing up.

This is a really critical age for them,'' Kristin Castelln, the station's rehabilitation manager, said Monday. They need food, nutrition, and we have to limit human contact as much as possible so we don't handle them or talk to them.''

Caretakers work with camouflage when feeding the birds. The flight and having oil coat their skins proved traumatic. But the adult pelicans, in general, accept the newborns as their own, Castelln said.

Some might be more nurturing than others,'' she added. We want them to be an example of how an adult pelican dives into a pool and eats.''

Miami Herald staff writer Figueroa reported from Panama City Beach. Staff writers Mazzei and Howard Cohen reported from Miami.

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