THEODORE, Ala. — BP and the federal government are offering a ray of hope in a summer of setbacks for crews trying to stop the gulf oil spill: The first of two relief wells could be done by the end of this month, weeks ahead of schedule.
But officials are quick to say that meeting such an optimistic timetable would require ideal conditions every step of the way, something that has rarely happened since the gusher began more than 2½ months ago.
It would not be the first time that BP's efforts to stop the leak have fallen short. So is BP setting itself up for failure again?
"BP's credibility is basically shot," said Jefferson Parish Council Chairman John Young. "I hope they plug it as soon as they can, but I'm not holding my breath. They're unreliable and they haven't been transparent or open."
Several times in the past week, BP managing director Robert Dudley has said drilling for a relief well is making fast progress and could be done before August.
But he has quickly made a caveat: Everything would have to go flawlessly, something he considers unlikely especially during hurricane season.
"In a perfect world with no interruptions, it's possible to be ready to stop the well between July 20 and July 27," Dudley told the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile, with a weeklong window of favorable weather opening, the Obama administration is pressing BP to move quickly on two operations that could double the amount of oil captured from the gushing well.
An oil recovery ship known as the Helix Producer, capable of capturing up to 25,000 barrels a day, has been waiting near the crippled well for more than a week, unable to connect to the well because of high winds and waves from Hurricane Alex.
The weather has also delayed deployment of a new, tighter-fitting cap for the well that not only will be able to capture more of the spewing oil but could potentially shut down all oil releases from the well. Swapping the caps requires disconnecting the well from a recovery ship, the Discoverer Enterprise, potentially increasing the flow of oil by as much as 15,000 barrels a day for two to three days.
The two operations were to have begun a week ago and take place in sequence. The administration now wants BP to move forward with both at the same time to take advantage of predicted calm weather.
The administration sent BP a letter Thursday asking for details of how the company planned to proceed with attaching the Helix and replacing the cap while minimizing the unimpeded flow of oil during the changeover. The government wants to know how much of the oil BP can skim, burn or disperse during the swap.
Government officials expect a quick answer and plan to decide by today how quickly to proceed.
On Thursday, Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who is leading the federal response to the spill, said work is proceeding on two relief wells that offer the promise of permanently killing the well. One is within 200 feet of the spewing Macondo well.
Allen said it is expected to intercept and penetrate the pipe from the Deepwater Horizon rig about 18,000 feet below sea level in seven to 10 days. The drilling crew is attempting to hit a target the size of a dinner plate at a depth where water pressure is great enough to crush a submarine.
BP originally thought the work would be done even earlier. In a permit filed in April with the U.S. Minerals and Management Service, the company predicted the relief well would be finished by July 15.
Allen stuck with the August time line for completion. "There are certain things that can move that date up, but my official position is the middle of August," he said.
Crews will not know how long it will take to stop the oil until they get there. Because the gushing well essentially is composed of pipes within pipes, oil could be coming up through multiple layers, Allen said.
The plan is to inject heavy mud and cement into each layer of the pipe, if needed, to overcome the pressure of the huge oil reservoir below.
"We're a bit ahead of schedule, but it just takes one storm to change that," BP spokesman Scott Dean said.
The oil's spread seems unstoppable. Near the Silver Slipper Casino in Bay St. Louis, Miss., black waves rolled on shore, bringing tar balls and a grassy material onto a few hundred yards of beach. Mississippi officials said Thursday that oil had gotten into the state's marshes.
"Oh my God," said Jessica Thomas, 31, of Pass Christian, Miss., who was snapping pictures while talking to her mother on her cell phone. "Oh my God."
She stood on the sand in a stretch of tar balls.
Thomas, whose parents live in Waveland, Miss., came to the closed beach in an effort to find work with a cleanup team.
"It makes me want to cry," she said. "I have a 6-week-old son who will never be able to enjoy this coast like I did."
Information from the Associated Press, New York Times and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.