WASHINGTON (CN) – As estimates of the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico continue to rise, Adm. Thad Allen, leader of the government’s response efforts, told reporters Friday that BP is bringing in more ships to process oil from the unprecedented leak.
“It is possible that the spillage could have been as little as 20,000 barrels per day or as large as 40,000 barrels per day,” one of the independent workgroups charged with estimating the flow rate said Thursday.
The new oil flow estimates doubled initial estimates, which could mean that 250,000 barrels of oil — the total amount spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster — is leaking into the Gulf every week.
Allen said the team of scientists will be able to get a better estimate as soon as remotely operated vehicles take additional pressure readings from the damaged blowout preventer. The scientists will be able to compare the new pressure readings to those taken before the riser was cut on June 3 to come up with a more exact number.
Discoverer Enterprise, the drillship currently positioned above the wellhead to collect and process oil, is producing 15,000 barrels of oil a day, with the capacity to produce up to 18,000 barrels per day.
Allen said the current rate of oil production is less than capacity due to concerns about the stability of the containment cap, “not because they cannot handle more production.”
He noted that more than 4 million gallons of oil have been recovered through the containment cap system since it was put in place a week ago.
As BP seals off additional valves on the containment dome, pushing more oil up through the riser, it will use another drillship, Q4000, which has the capacity to process up to 10,000 barrels of oil per day. Q4000 will be in place next week, Allen said, and could bring production capacity up to 28,000 barrels of oil per day.
The Q4000 may be connected to the tube used to inject materials into the gushing wellhead during the failed top-kill attempt several weeks ago. The tube would be used to draw oil to the Q4000, where it will be burned off or processed.
Allen added that BP will bring in a third drillship to process another 10,000 barrels per day. He said the operation will increase production capacity from 20,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil a day to between 40,000 and 50,000 barrels of oil a day.
Discovery Enterprise, Q4000 and the third ship will eventually be replaced by two other drillships, Toisa Pisces and Loch Rannoch, which will continue oil production during hurricane season.
“The Discovery Enterprise is basically locked to the bottom of the sea,” Allen said, explaining that the current oil recovery system uses a rigid riser pipe to draw oil to the surface, which will be replaced with flexible tubes that can be detached from drillships during a storm.
The Toisa Pisces and Loch Rannoch will be linked to the wellhead by flexible hoses that can be disconnected in the case of a hurricane. The vessels will be in place between mid-June and the first week of July, Allen said.
The Loch Rannoch drillship is currently en route from the North Sea.
When asked if the new system would be “hurricane ready,” Allen said he would not classify it so much as “hurricane ready” as “hurricane durable.”
Allen reported that responders have skimmed 18 million gallons of oily seawater off the ocean’s surface so far, with a 10 percent to 15 percent yield of oil.
Allen said he has redirected the larger oil spill response effort to focus on the region of the spill from the shoreline out to 50 miles, reporting that more than 4,500 vessels are involved in skimming, booming and other response operations in Gulf waters.
Allen said the government has spent about $140 million dollars in addressing the spill so far, using funds from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund set up under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. He said the final overall federal response cost was “indeterminate.” “As long as we don’t have that well capped we’re going to keep pouring funds in there,” he said.
On Thursday, Allen sent a letter to BP demanding that top company officials come to Washington for a meeting next Wednesday with Allen, President Obama and senior administration officials.
Allen said the agenda for the meeting is being developed — “it is on my worklist for today,” he said — but federal officials will likely address BP’s financial responsibility for costs associated with the spill.
“There is a list of concerns on both sides,” Allen said.
Allen said he does not talk much to BP CEO Tony Hayward, but regularly deals with BP Managing Director Robert Dudley, who has largely become BP’s public face for the spill.
When asked if Allen trusted BP, he said, “I hear the word ‘trust’ all the time. The fact of the matter is we need to have a cooperative, productive relationship. I ask for answers, I get them. If you call that trust, yes.”