Interior secretary tells Congress that offshore oil drilling paused, not stopped permanently

WASHINGTON (AP) — Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Wednesday the oil spill containment operation in the Gulf of Mexico is now catching up to 630,000 gallons a day and that the amount could nearly double by next week as processing of the captured oil is expanded.

"We continue to make progress," Allen, who heads the BP oil spill response, said at a briefing.

He 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.

"We'll be at 28,000 (barrels) by next week. We're building capacity," said Allen. That would mean 1.17 million gallons of oil a day would be captured, he said.

But officials still are unable to say how much oil is flowing from the broken wellhead a mile beneath the Gulf.

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

At a Senate hearing, meanwhile, Interior Department officials 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 estimated higher numbers.

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 huge, 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.

Some senators, meanwhile, expressed concern over the impact the response to the spill will have on oil development.

Testifying before the Senate energy panel, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sought to reassure lawmakers that the Obama administration has pressed a "pause button, not the stop button," on all offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.

Salazar described the recent moratorium that President Barack Obama put in place for offshore deepwater drilling, along with new requirements for shallow water oil drilling. The moratorium affects 33 deep-water drilling rigs, but does not halt oil production from existing production wells.

While many Gulf residents are reeling from the economic impact of the oil spill on fishing and tourism, the region also relies heavily on paychecks from the oil industry and these workers are worried about their economic futures.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told Salazar the drilling moratorium threatens hundreds of oil industry jobs and could result in "economic havoc" and be "devastating to our state and to the Gulf Coast."

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."