Forty-nine days later, the Gulf of Mexico got a bit of good news. Monday, U.S. officials said that a "cap" installed over a leaking oil pipe was capturing more than 460,000 gallons (or 11,000 barrels) of oil per day. Instead of spilling into the Gulf, the oil was being funneled up through pipe to a ship on the surface.
WASHINGTON - Forty-nine days later, the Gulf of Mexico got a bit of good news.
Yesterday, U.S. officials said that a "cap" installed over a leaking oil pipe was capturing more than 460,000 gallons (or 11,000 barrels) of oil per day. Instead of spilling into the Gulf, the oil was being funneled up through pipe to a ship on the surface.
The spill isn't over: Large amounts of oil - nobody knows how much - still billow out of vents in the cap. But for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, humans seemed to be partly in control of the leaking BP well, instead of the other way around.
"We only define success as when we actually get the oil plugged ... and we return people's lives back to normal," said Kent Wells, a senior vice president at BP. "But this is an encouraging step."
On the same day, there were signs of how much trouble remains.
A Coast Guard official said that the BP spill has broken up into something the government had not trained for: numerous tiny spills, which are still outflanking cleanup crews across hundreds of miles of coastline.
President Obama said yesterday he's been talking closely to Gulf Coast fishermen and various experts on BP's catastrophic oil spill not for lofty academic reasons but "so I know whose ass to kick."
The salty words, part of Mr. Obama's recent efforts to telegraph to Americans his engagement with the crisis, came in an interview in Michigan with NBC's Today show.
He strongly defended his role in dealing with the crisis that began with the April 20 explosion on a BP-leased oil rig in the Gulf, killing 11 workers and starting the nation's largest-ever oil spill.
"I was down there a month ago before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the gulf," he told NBC's Matt Lauer. "I was meeting with fishermen in the rain talking about what a potential crisis this could be."
NBC aired a portion of the interview yesterday evening in advance of today's Today program.
Some have criticized the President for not engaging passionately enough on the spill.
Earlier yesterday, he sought to reassure the nation that the Gulf Coast would "bounce back" from the worst oil spill in the nation's history, but not without time, effort, and reimbursement from BP.
Surrounded by Cabinet members, he said that not only is he confident the crisis will pass but also that the affected area "comes back even stronger than ever."
He and top federal officials were briefed on the government's battle against the spill by Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the government's efforts in dealing with the tragedy.
Admiral Allen yesterday told reporters a cap on the damaged oil well is keeping up to 462,000 gallons of oil a day from leaking into the Gulf. That's up from about 441,000 gallons on Saturday and about 250,000 on Friday.
BP in a statement put the amount being captured at 466,200 gallons. Admiral Allen said the government was using its own flow-rate calculations and not relying on those from BP.
"This will be contained," Mr. Obama asserted. "It may take some time, and it's going to take a whole lot of effort. There is going to be damage done to the Gulf Coast, and there is going to be economic damages that we've got to make sure BP is responsible for and compensates people for."
Mr. Obama said that government scientists and other experts confirmed that the capping device "is beginning to capture some of the oil. We are still trying to make a better determination as to how much it is capturing."
But, he added, "even if we are successful in containing some or much of the oil" the problem wouldn't be solved until relief wells reach the area of the damaged well in several months.
"What is clear is that the economic impact of this disaster is going to be substantial and it is going to be ongoing," he said.
"We also know that there's already a lot of oil that's been released and that there's going to be more oil released no matter how successful this containment effort is," he added.
He reiterated an appeal he made on Friday in the region that BP not "nickel and dime" Gulf coast residents and businesses that have filed claims against the London-based oil giant.
"'We are going to insist that money flow quickly and in a timely basis," Mr. Obama said.
Admiral Allen acknowledged at yesterday's White House briefing that the company has struggled with handling claims. He said we'd "like them to get better" at processing the claims and that a system for paying them should be "routinized" as soon as possible.
The five-foot tall steel cap on the well, put in place on Thursday night, acts like an upside-down funnel, carrying a high-pressure mix of oil, natural gas, and seawater up to a ship on the surface. At the ship, the mixture is separated: the gas burned off, the water cleaned, and the oil kept in storage tanks. It will be taken to shore, and likely sent to a refinery.
BP said it plans to replace the cap - perhaps later this month or early next month - with a slightly bigger one that will provide a tighter fit and thus collect more oil. It will also be designed to allow the company to suspend the cleanup and then resume it quickly if a hurricane threatens the Gulf later this season. The new cap is still being designed.
"It gives us much better containment than we've got" with the existing cap, said BP senior vice president Kent Wells.
But, even as BP's progress was announced, there were new signs of the impact the largest oil spill in U.S. history is having on coastlines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said yesterday that it had now found more than 1,000 birds, either dead or alive but oily, along the coast. About 120 miles of shoreline have been affected.