Reporting from New Orleans and Washington — Federal officials conceded Wednesday that efforts to contain the well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico may have boosted the amount of oil gushing out, but predicted they would be able to nearly double the quantity of crude collected by next week.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also reassured congressional representatives from the beleaguered gulf states that a six-month moratorium on drilling that many here have called economically ruinous could be lifted sooner if new studies and protections are put into place.
"If it can be done before six months, then there's a possibility that we could take a look at it before then," Salazar told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. "It was the president's directive that we press the pause button … not the stop button …so that we can make sure that if we move forward with … drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, that it can be done in a way that is protective of people and protective of the environment as well."
Coast Guard officials said BP was drawing 15,000 barrels a day of oil into a containment ship a mile above the leak, and is expected to increase that capacity to 28,000 barrels a day by next week with the arrival of the first of two vessels steaming for the gulf.
The Senate on Wednesday night passed a bill lifting the $100-million cap on money available from a liability pool to cover the spill response. As a result, any amount can be used from the fund, which currently contains about $1.6 billion.
New equipment will enable cleanup commanders to burn off oil and gas that exceeds what can be gathered and shuttled to shore, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the response, told reporters.
Scientists will scrutinize new high-definition video and compare it with old footage to answer within days one of the most troublesome questions dogging the cleanup: How much oil is leaking?
Though recent government estimates put the leak at 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day — nearly three times what well operator BP reported in the initial days — it now appears that the flow may have grown larger when a kinked riser pipe was cut to fit the temporary containment cap on June 3.
"The rate of increase may have been somewhere between 4[%] and 5% of what it was before," Salazar told the Senate committee.
Scientists aren't sure yet, but believe the leak increase is "substantially less than the 20%" initially predicted by government officials, said his deputy, David Hayes.
"I'm not going to declare victory on anything until I have absolute numbers. I think we all have had estimates, and some people have been disappointed when they were changed, so show me the numbers," Allen said in an earlier briefing.
Local officials have expressed continued frustration that no one has seemed to be able to say how much oil has been spilled, a crucial determinant of the level of liability BP faces in paying out the growing number of claims associated with the spill.
"What I want to know is, how much oil do they think is out there in the water? How much oil is continuing to be released?" said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. "It's very frustrating that, over 50 days into this, they still don't have a reliable estimate."
Jindal said he had resisted any demand that President Obama, who is planning a fourth trip to the region next week, issue a federal disaster declaration for the Gulf Coast, in part because he does not want to do anything to limit BP's liability for cleaning up the mess and paying damages.
"They shouldn't do anything that puts the American taxpayer on the hook for BP's spill," he said.
Coast Guard officials issued a stern order giving the British oil company 72 hours to come up with a plan, with backup measures, to swiftly get additional containment measures in place.
"Now that the so-called top hat containment system has begun to capture and recover some of the oil escaping from the wellhead, it is imperative that you put equipment, systems and processes in place to ensure that the remaining oil and gas flowing can be recovered," the Coast Guard's on-scene commander, Adm. James A. Watson, said in a letter to BP.
The current plan calls for replacing the temporary containment cap with a permanent, hard cap, "which means we could take leakage down to almost zero," Allen said.
Cleanup managers will be replacing the fixed hose that connects the collection vessels to the well with a flexible hose that gives surface vessels more leeway to maneuver — a key consideration as more vessels are brought in and hurricane season, which began last week, threatens to bring dangerously high seas.