With severe weather from a tropical depression a growing concern in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration is asking BP to speed up plans to bring in a third containment ship and to replace the top cap on the leaking oil well, senior administration officials said in a background briefing to reporters.
The administration has given BP 24-hours to answer questions about the proposal, but White House officials expect the oil company to respond much sooner, and work could begin within the next day or two.
There is a catch to the plan though -- it would also mean that thousands of extra barrels of oil could leak for several days until the process is complete. This comes as the oil spill nears day 80.
The original plan was to first replace the top hat over the well with a much tighter "sealing cap," then connect the third vessel. That could take 10-13 days.
But a senior administration official says the window before bad weather could move in is only eight days. So BP has proposed doing both procedures at the same time. Another administration official said, "This just allows us to collapse two timelines into one."
One of the containment ships, the Discover Enterprise, must unhook from the top hat while the seal is replaced. The Enterprise is currently capturing roughly 15,000 barrels of oil per day-- all of that would end up spilling into the gulf.
Once the seal is replaced, the Enterprise could re-attach, along with another containment ship, the Helix. They would have a capture capacity of 25,000 barrels per day.
The new seal would allow even more ships to hook up. Siphoning capacity could reach 80,000 barrels a day, including 10,000 barrels a day being collected by another ship from a separate line.
Regarding reports that BP may be several weeks ahead of schedule in digging a relief well, one senior administration official expressed skepticism, saying, "I don't think at this time... we think that that is a reasonable expectation of the date."