BP will soon try to boost its oil collection efforts in the Gulf of Mexico to capture 20,000 barrels per day, the company and the U.S. Coast Guard said Monday.
Federal officials have estimated that up to 25,000 barrels a day (four million litres) is spilling from the wellhead.
"BP anticipates moving another craft in that can handle additional production and the combination of the vessels … will have a production capability of 20,000 barrels a day," coast guard Admiral Thad Allen told a White House news conference.
That would represent a near doubling from the latest containment figures. BP said Monday it had captured 11,100 barrels of oil through its containment cap on Sunday — a slight increase from the 10,500 barrels captured the day before.
"In the long run, BP is looking at creating a more permanent connection that can be disconnected easily if we have a hurricane or bad weather later on," he said.
At the same time, Allen left no doubt that efforts to stop the leak and clean up what's already spilled will be a huge job that will continue long into the summer and fall.
'We are no longer dealing with a large monolithic spill.' —U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen
"We are no longer dealing with a large monolithic spill," said the admiral heading the U.S. government's relief effort. "We have patches of oil going in a lot of directions. We need to adapt to meet the threat."
Allen said there are more than 100 vessels skimming offshore around the surface area above the well.
"The next critical component … is to increase the amount of skimmers."
Cleanup efforts will continue long after the spill stops, he said. Two relief wells — widely thought to be the best hope of finally stopping the leak — should be completed by early August.
"Dealing with the oil spill on the surface will take a couple of months [after that]," he said. But he warned that it will take years to clean up contaminated marshlands.
About 200 kilometres of coastline have been affected so far, he said.
Allen added that efforts to contain and clean up the oil could be suspended during hurricanes.
"There may be times when we're going to have to disconnect that operation and re-establish it," he said. "This is a long campaign and we're going to be dealing with this oil for the foreseeable future."
'We will get through this'
Allen also briefed U.S. President Barack Obama and other officials on the cleanup and containment efforts.
Obama emerged later to express confidence that the U.S would bounce back from the disaster. "We will get through this crisis," he said. "It may take some time, and it's going to take a whole lot of effort.
"What is clear is that the economic impact of this disaster is going to be substantial," Obama said, reiterating that his administration will make BP compensate people whose livelihoods have been affected.
"We are going to insist that money flow quickly and in a timely basis."
BP's costs hit $1.25B
BP estimated Monday that the spill has cost it $1.25 billion US to date.
The figure includes the cost of the "spill response, containment, relief well drilling, grants to the Gulf states, claims paid, and federal costs," the company said in a statement.
The cost estimate does not include $360 million for a project to build six sand berms meant to protect Louisiana's wetlands from the spreading oil, BP said.
After several failed efforts to stem the flow of oil, BP successfully placed a funnel-like cap on the deepwater well on Thursday. Since the cap was placed over the well, it has been diverting an increasing amount of oil to a tanker on the surface.
The company said it is still working on ways to improve oil collection, noting that it will be "a few days" before an assessment can be made about whether the containment effort has been successful.
"We are doing everything we can to do the right thing," BP chief executive officer Tony Hayward said Sunday in an interview on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.
"We are going to stop the leak, we're going to clean up the oil, we are going to remediate any environmental damage, and we are going to return the Gulf coast to the position it was in prior to this event," he said.
Spill effects spreading
Officials have warned that the cap will trap only so much of the oil, and relief wells being drilled won't be completed until August. In the meantime, some oil will continue to spew into the water.
The prospect that the crisis could stretch beyond summer has devastated residents along the Gulf, who are seeing more and thicker globs of oil appear all along the coast.
The floors in Ruth Dailey's condominium in Gulf Shores, Ala., are already smeared with dark blotches of oil, she said, and things are only going to get worse.
"This is just the beginning," she said. "I have a beachfront condo for a reason. With this, no one will want to come."
A couple of kilometres away, workers cleaning sand at a state park finished their work and left their refuse on the beach in the way of the incoming tide.
"Waves are washing over plastic bags filled with tar and oil. It's crazy," said Mike Reynolds, a real estate agent and director of Share the Beach, a turtle conservation group.
Meanwhile, at Pensacola Beach, Fla., the turquoise waves were flecked with floating balls of tar.
Panama City Beach, a major tourist destination in Florida's Panhandle, was bracing for the arrival of oil, which could occur within 72 hours.
"We have just entered the area of uncertainty for about half of our beach," said Dan Rowe, president of the city's convention and visitors bureau. "We are still hoping tar balls don't show up here, but we are putting the contingency plans in place and everyone is out there looking at the beach and inspecting it."
Millions of litres of oil have spilled since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded 80 kilometres off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 workers.