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Replacing old cap on gulf oil starts this weekend as hopes run high for relief

As BP works to control the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, local wildlife struggle for survival.

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By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010

BP is expected to start the delicate task of removing the loose cap atop its runaway well in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday and replacing it with a firm one that could capture almost all the oil and gas gushing out.

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But before any permanent capping can occur, the uncapped well will once again spew its contents into the gulf in greatly increased amounts for as many as four days. By then, officials said, the new containment cap should be in place and directing the oil to ships waiting on the surface.

National Incident Commander Thad Allen announced late Friday that he has approved a detailed timeline, submitted by BP, for the delicate maneuvers required to make the switches.

The document, with extensive backup plans and explanations of how and when key decisions will be made, was required by the administration before BP began work on removing the cap.

"I validated this plan because the capacity for oil containment when these installations are complete will be far greater than the capabilities we have achieved using current systems. In addition, favorable weather expected over the coming days will provide the working conditions necessary for these transitions to be successfully completed without delays," Allen said in a statement. "The transition to this new containment infrastructure could begin in the next days but will take seven to ten days to complete."

Uncapping the leak will release a heavy flow of oil and gas, but the effects should be reduced by the simultaneous connecting of a new collecting vessel to a different section of the damaged wellhead, Allen said. The process of hooking up the Helix Producer I began Friday and is expected to be completed Sunday, allowing it to then begin collecting some, or perhaps all, of the additional oil being released.

If successfully attached, the new firm cap has the potential to vastly decrease the amount of oil leakage. The well, however, will be considered under control only when a relief well reaches the site and can push tons of mud and later cement into the borehole to "kill" and seal it.

During a visit to California, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that the administration will release a newly crafted moratorium on offshore drilling in the next few days. The administration wants to keep the moratorium in place while it investigates the cause of the explosion that triggered the blowout, but it lost an initial court challenge, and on Thursday the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the earlier ruling.

The administration said it did not consider the ruling a major setback because it allows the Interior Department to move in court against any operators who attempt to start deepwater drilling in the gulf. "Our view on the moratorium is that it was right when it was issued and it's right today," Salazar said.

Many oil and gas exploration companies view the ban as overly broad and an intrusion into their businesses. The drilling industry and some members of Congress have warned that the policy could lead to an exodus of rigs from the gulf, and with them thousands of jobs.

On Friday, one exploration company -- Diamond Offshore Drilling -- said it was moving its Ocean Endeavor rig from the gulf to Egypt.

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