BP's efforts to place a new containment cap over the gushing Gulf of Mexico oil well could effectively stop the disastrous spill as early as Monday, a US official said on Friday.
Admiral Thad Allen, who oversees the government's spill response, said on day 81 of the disaster that an operation to swap in the new cap could begin on Saturday and the entire process would take "about three to four days."
If successful, the new cap could capture all of the crude spilling into the Gulf and allow it to be siphoned up to container vessels on the surface, in effect halting the devastating spill of crude into the sea that has imperiled fragile coastlines and wildlife across the Gulf Coast.
The days-long process of switching containment devices, however, could see the amount of oil spilling into the ocean temporarily increase by up to 15,000 barrels.
"There would be a multi-day period there when we're putting the containment cap on where there would be some exposure of hydrocarbons going into the environment," said Allen. The operation is the latest attempt to contain the spill that was sparked by the April 20 explosion aboard the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
BP said meanwhile in a letter to Allen that it wants to move forward with its plan.
Managing Director Bob Dudley said the company wanted to take advantage of forecast good weather to place a more effective cap over the leak and hook up the new containment ship, the Helix Producer.
Under a timeline released by BP, the relief well that would permanently seal the leak would be completed by August 13.
Allen said the government was reviewing BP's proposal but that he was optimistic about a fix soon for the environmental disaster.
"We have a significant chance to dramatically reduce the oil that's being released into the environment and maybe shut the well in altogether in the next week," he told CNN Friday.
The White House has pushed for the new containment device because its superior seal is expected to capture the entire leak and is better equipped to deal with a hurricane threat in the storm-prone Gulf.
Crews have already seen clean-up and containment operations hampered by bad weather and with an active storm season predicted, officials are busy developing contingencies.
The new system will use "quick-disconnect couplings" allowing container ships to shut down operations and exit the area quickly in the face of a hurricane, Allen said.
The news comes just after President Barack Obama's administration lost a bid to lift a stay of its six-month freeze on deepwater drilling in the Gulf.
Current government estimates of the spill range from between 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day, based on interpretation of a live video feed of the leak.
An estimated two to four million barrels of oil have gushed into the Gulf waters since the spill began, and a permanent solution is not expected until one of two relief wells is completed.
Oil has now washed up on beaches in all five Gulf states -- Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- forcing the closure of fishing grounds and threatening scores of coastal communities with financial ruin.
The spill prompted the Obama administration to order a moratorium on deepwater drilling, but the freeze was overturned by a federal court last month and an appeals court upheld that ruling on Thursday.
The government "made no showing that there is any likelihood that drilling activities will be resumed pending appeal," the court said.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he will soon issue a new order to block deepwater drilling, regardless of how the court ruled, and that oil companies have not resumed drilling due to the legal uncertainties.