GULF OF MEXICO — BP underwater robots steadily assembled heavy metal pieces in what could be the most significant progress yet toward containing the gushing Gulf of Mexico oil well, watched warily by residents onshore.
The British oil giant was ahead of schedule as it went into the 83rd day of the environmental and economic disaster today. Across the Gulf region, repeated failures to fix the disaster have taken their toll, breeding skepticism among fishermen and politicians alike.
“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.
In a regulatory filing today, BP PLC said the installation of the sealing cap was proceeding as planned. A transition spool had been installed on the existing flange. The next step was to install a capping stack that has three closing rams.
It was unclear from undersea video feeds and the comments in the filing if the process of lowering the new cap had begun early today. Several spokesmen did not respond to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment early today, and people who answered phone calls to vessels involved in the containment effort declined to comment.
Also today, BP said in the Securities and Exchange Commission filing that the cost of the response to date has risen to roughly $3.5 billion. That includes the cost of the spill response, containment, relief well drilling, grants to the Gulf states, claims paid, and federal costs.
Once the new cap was placed atop the gusher it was expected to provide a tight seal that should 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 prior failed attempts to stop the leak have made BP careful to keep expectations grounded.
BP has tried and failed with methods such as placing a giant concrete box over the well, pumping mud and shredded rubber into it and using a pipe to siphon the crude. A converted supertanker specially equipped to skim huge amounts of oil from the surface has been hampered by bad weather.
Gulf residents and politicians reserved judgment about BP’s latest effort and said damage already done to the environment, fishing and tourism will haunt the region.
“I’m not a scientist, but I know a lot of people are praying that they get that flow stopped,” said Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who was attending a Jimmy Buffet beach benefit concert yesterday in Alabama.
Roughly 81,000 square miles of federal waters in the Gulf have been closed to fishing since the beginning of the disaster, about 44 percent of the total.
The well has been gushing largely unchecked since an old, leaky cap was removed from the wellhead Saturday afternoon to make way for the new one.
BP senior vice president Kent Wells said yesterday he’s pleased with the progress, but hastened to add the operation was still expected to last up to six more days.
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.
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.”
The new cap will be aided in containing the leak by the arrival of the Helix Producer, a vessel that should be able to take in about 1 million gallons of crude per day after coming online. The Helix connected to flexible pipes from the well Friday, and crews have been running tests since then.
Ultimately, the plan is to have four vessels collecting oil from the leak with a combined capacity of about 2.5 million gallons to 3.4 million gallons a day — enough to capture all the oil leaking, if federal estimates are right. Getting all the vessels on the task will take about two to three weeks.
The new, tighter cap is not intended to be the permanent solution to the problem.
Relief wells are being dug for the final fix, a “bottom kill” in which heavy drilling mud and cement are pumped in from below the broken wellhead.
BP and government officials have said the relief wells are expected to be completed sometime around mid-August.