By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; A06
In a complicated subsea dance involving robots and hardware, BP made progress Sunday in its effort to install a new, secure cap on the gushing oil well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, but the company says that it is early in the week-long project and that the oil is spewing as skimmers try to capture the newly vigorous flow of crude.
BP engineers are hopeful that by week's end they will have placed a perfect seal over the well, which began bleeding oil into the gulf April 20 after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, in which 11 workers died.
"We did an extensive amount of preparation work in terms of planning and installation, and we're pleased at this point on how it's going," said Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, referring to the removal early Sunday morning of the top flange on the leaking well and the installation of a device that will eventually connect the new cap to the well.
Wells said the maneuvers, which are being conducted in large part by robotic submarines a mile under the water's surface, are going smoothly partly because of a window of good weather and calm seas.
Separately, the Sunday Times of London reported that BP is in talks to sell about $10 billion in assets, including a share of its Alaska oil production, to Apache, a large U.S. independent oil company.
A sale that size would cover about half the amount of money BP has promised to put in an escrow fund to cover claims related to the spill. BP owns 26 percent of the Prudhoe Bay field, the biggest in the United States, and five other fields on Alaska's North Slope. But the field is past its prime. More than half the oil has been produced from the Prudhoe Bay field; production, a fraction of its peak, is dropping about 10 percent a year, BP has said.
On Saturday, robots removed the cap that had been placed on top of the leak in early June to collect the oil and send it to surface ships for collection or burning. That move allows the well to spew oil in an uncontrolled manner until the new cap is installed.
BP said a containment ship, the Helix Producer, steamed into place over the well and was expected to begin collecting oil Sunday night or early Monday.
Federal officials say the well is releasing as much as 2.5 million gallons of oil a day. The old cap collected about 1 million gallons, according to the government. BP officials say that once the new cap and a new containment vessel are in place, the system will be capable of capturing 2.5 million to 3.4 million gallons daily.
Still, it would be a temporary fix; BP hopes to plug the leak permanently by mid-August.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has started interviewing witnesses as part of the criminal and civil probe of the spill.