NEW ORLEANS – The federal official leading the Gulf oil spill cleanup said Friday a new containment cap and an additional ship collecting oil could effectively contain the spill in the next three days.
The work to replace a leaky containment cap on the well head with a tighter one will begin Saturday, National Incident Commander Thad Allen said. At the same time, a ship connecting to a different part of the leak is expected to come online Sunday.
Oil will flow unimpeded into the Gulf during the cap switch for at least part of the weekend.
If all goes according to plan, the combination of the cap and the new vessel could collect all the leaking oil by Monday, stopping it from escaping into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since April 20.
"I use the word 'contained,'" Allen said. "'Stop' is when we put the plug in down below."
Work continues on what officials hope will be the final plugging of the well — drilling on two relief wells through which mud and cement will be pumped to stop the leak once and for all. That's expected to happen sometime in mid-August.
The new containment cap is expected to form a better seal over the well head, to allow more of the oil to be collected and sent up to ships on the surface for collection or burning.
"Technically it's pretty achievable," Allen said. He said if the new cap can't be placed on the well, the old cap will be put back and there are multiple backup caps available in case any one cap fails.
The new, tighter cap should be in place early Monday. Allen said the ship Helix Producer, which is to be hooked to a different part of the leaking well — lower than the new cap — will start collecting oil Sunday and be fully operational Tuesday. He has previously said that the full system should be able to collect 60,000 to 80,000 barrels a day.
The schedule for both efforts has been accelerated to take advantage of what could be a rare window of good weather. The hookup of the Helix Producer was delayed this week by poor weather. But an unexpected break in weather patterns creating choppy seas provides a window of a week or so with waves of only 1 or 2 feet.
"Everybody agrees we got the weather to do what we need," he said.
Containing the leak is not the same as stopping the environmental catastrophe that began April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers.
The relief wells remain the best option for a final plug to the leak, at which point cleanup and restoration become the main focus.
Though officials said the first relief well could be finished by the end of July, weeks ahead of schedule, they are quick to point out that such an optimistic timetable would require ideal conditions every step of the way.
That is something that has rarely happened since the leak began.