June 19, 2010— -- President Obama boldly predicts that most of the oil leaking the Gulf of Mexico will be contained by the end of this month. Maybe, but at least 7,000 barrels of oil will continue to pour into the Gulf every day until mid-July at the earliest.
That's because the so-called "top hat," which the country watched being installed with great fanfare two weeks ago, that was supposed to cut the leaking oil to a "relative trickle" is too small and will be replaced by BP.
The president left the impression that BP is getting a handle on containment when he spoke to the country Tuesday.
"In the coming days and weeks, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well," Obama told the nation from the Oval Office.
BP does say by the end of June it will be able to handle 53,000 barrels of oil a day. But the government estimates that up to 60,000 barrels a day is leaking -- meaning 7,000 barrels of oil a day will leak at least for the next 25 days.
It's that flow rate, which BP and government officials originally said was unimportant, that is so important.
BP designed the "top hat" to handle up to 18,000 barrels a day. When workers, using robotic vehicles put it on the well head, it was obvious the contraption was overmatched.
It is not providing a solid seal, and there is so much pressure and oil flowing through the well that BP can't close all four vents of the vessel, fearing that it might pop off the well head.
Even if the vents could be closed, the "top hat's" pipe to the surface couldn't handle the gusher. It's too small, too.
So BP is working around the "top hat." It has already hooked up one pipe below the "top hat" and is now hooking up a second to carry oil to the surface.
Those pipes are being hooked up to the malfunctioning blowout preventer (BOP) in an operation that BP says should be completed by the end of the month. But that still leaves those 7,000 barrels a day leaking into the gulf until mid-July.
That's when the company is contemplating a risky operation to try to capture nearly all the oil by replacing the "top hat." The containment vessel will be removed and the well will gush for some period of time.
BP will be collecting oil from the blowout preventer, but the amount of oil leaking into the gulf will spike to at least 30,000 barrels a day.
When we asked BP today how long it will take to put a new capping valve on the well, a spokesman couldn't tell us if it would be hours, or days, just that "we're not planning on it taking weeks."
The current plan calls for taking off the "top hat" and then unbolting the flange at the top of the BOP. The capping valve would then be bolted "flange to flange" to the BOP.
The capping valve will have two outlets. So a total of four pipes, two of which would still be hooked up to the BOP, will carry up to 80,000 barrels to the surface.
BP says that will allow them to capture nearly all the oil -- if it works.