WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard commander in charge of the federal response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico warned on Sunday that even if the flow of crude is stopped by summer, it could take well into autumn to deal with the slick spreading relentlessly across the gulf.
The assessment came as the sheer volume of oil gushing from the out-of-control well forced BP to temporarily halt its attempts to capture more oil by closing all four vents on a capping device, a technician working on the operation told the New York Times. The technician spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Even with three vents still open, the cap is capturing so much oil — more than 10,000 barrels a day — that the company does not have adequate equipment at hand to process it all.
The well, like a raging undersea beast, has continued to stymie BP and government officials, as tactic after tactic to contain it has failed.
Adm. Thad Allen of the Coast Guard, who oversees the federal response to the disaster, said on CBS's Face the Nation that BP officials were working to secure the cap over the wellhead and to gradually increase the amount of oil recovered. But he said the only solution to the problem would be the successful completion of relief wells to finally stop the flow from the bottom of the 18,000-foot-deep well, a job that will not be completed until August at the earliest.
"But even after that, there will be oil out there for months to come. This will be well into the fall," Allen said.
Officials said they were collecting more than 10,000 barrels a day from the well, but it was impossible to gauge what fraction of the total flow that represented. A federal panel has estimated that from 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day is flowing from the well. But those calculations were made before BP cut the riser pipe last week to accommodate the capping device, which administration officials have said could increase the flow rate by as much as 20 percent.
The area of gulf shoreline potentially affected by the spill has continued to grow, extending from central Louisiana to Port St. Joe in the middle of the Florida Panhandle, a 400-mile front in a widening sea, air and land war.
It was too early to judge the degree of success of BP's latest maneuver to control the leak, although company officials continued to express optimism that the containment cap and a new device to be installed later in the week could eventually collect the majority of the oil.
After two days of trying to close the four vents on the capping device, engineers on Sunday decided to keep some open when they realized that more oil was being captured than could be processed on a drill ship floating in the gulf nearby. In a statement late Sunday, the company said it "may leave some" of the valves open "to ensure system stability."