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Effort to capture oil from Gulf leak raises questions about just how much has been gushing

WASHINGTON (AP) — The latest announcement on how much oil is being captured from the gushing BP oil well raised additional doubts Wednesday about the validity of government estimates on how much crude actually has been spewing into Gulf waters.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the spill response effort, said that BP was now capturing 630,000 gallons a day and that the amount could nearly double by next week to roughly 1.17 million gallons. But the government's estimate of the total oil leaking has been 500,000 to 1 million gallons every day.

Allen said he expects a fresh analysis of the flow rate to produce more accurate estimates on how much oil is being released.

The inability to pin down how much oil is gushing from the BP well a mile beneath the water's surface has stymied government officials almost from the day of the accident April 20.

"I'm not going to declare victory on anything until I have absolute numbers," said Allen on Wednesday.

At a Senate hearing, meanwhile, Interior Department officials — like Allen — expressed confidence that more precise numbers on the flow rate will be available from a special task force of scientists, which is nearing completion of a review of earlier flow data and has been provided new high-resolution video.

"We expect to have a much better estimate (of oil flow) very soon," Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told senators at a hearing by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The task force earlier estimated that 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day are flowing from the broken wellhead, but Hayes said those numbers assume "a lot of uncertainty." Some independent scientists long have said the flow is almost certain to be higher.

Meanwhile, Allen acknowledged that the amount of oil now being captured is close to exceeding the capacity of the processing ship that is on site. But he said a second vessel, where oil can be both stored and flared, is expected to be available soon. And an even larger vessel from the North Sea also is heading to the oil spill site.

With oil expecting to gush for another two months, Allen said he wants a long-term containment strategy from BP "with built in redundancies" that would taken into account new risks posed by the upcoming hurricane season.

He said a 1,000-foot-long vessel being brought in from the North Sea is similar to a production platform that can "lock into position" of the water surface and provide greater stability as it processes oil flowing from the damaged wellhead.

Allen also noted that he and other officials are meeting with BP later Wednesday to discuss problems with the handling of damage claims related to the April 20 accident.

He said claims brought by individuals for loss of business as a result of oil contamination "sometimes (is) hard to get a handle on" but that he will discuss the issue with BP officials to try to speed up the process.

President Barack Obama, who has been to Louisiana three times since the oil rig explosion, planned a two-day trip to the region early next week. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president is expected to make stops in Gulfport, Miss.; Theodore and Orange Beach, Ala.; and Pensacola, Fla.

Some senators, meanwhile, expressed concern over the impact the response to the spill will have on oil development, particularly the six-month moratorium the Obama administration has imposed on deep-water drilling.

Testifying before the Senate energy panel, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, when pressed by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., promised to ask BP to compensate energy companies for losses if they have to lay off workers or suffer economically because of the moratorium.

"BP is responsible for all the damages that flow from the oil spill," said Salazar, adding that the job losses and economic harm from the pause on deep-water drilling "are some of the consequences from the oil spill."

Salazar, however, stood firm on the six-month drilling moratorium, along with new requirements for shallow-water oil drilling. The moratorium affects 33 deep-water drilling rigs, but it does not halt oil production from existing production wells.

Landrieu said a halt in these drilling activities for six months will "wreak economic havoc on the region." She said as many as 330,000 jobs could be affected in Louisiana alone and cited complaints she has received from a number of companies that support the drilling on shore and on the rigs themselves.

Salazar said the administration wants to make sure that drilling can be done in a way "that is protective of the people and the Gulf region." He said the drilling pause will be in place "until we can have a sense of safety, until we have a sense that this (kind of spill) can never happen again."

At another hearing, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee took testimony on legislation that would raise the federal oil spill liability cap from $75 million to $10 billion.

Kenneth Murchison, a law professor at Louisiana State University, told the lawmakers there are "economic and more arguments" for raising the cap. Holding back his emotions, Murchison, born in Louisiana with deep roots in the state, said he is "dismayed by the horrific damages" done by the oil spill.

Opponents of the cap increase argued that the federal limit does not affect unlimited liability under state law, but raising it to $10 billion would unfairly impact smaller oil companies.

At a separate House hearing, Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, said oil companies wouldn't be able to get insurance to cover $10 billion in potential liability.

But Michael Greenstone, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor, said the current $75 million cap encourages oil companies to take shortcuts at the risk of safety.

"Firms and people behave differently when they are protected from the consequences of their action," said Greenstone.

___

Associated Press writer Joan Lowy contributed to this report.

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