- - Sunday, July 11, 2010

HOUSTON | The first of two relief wells is expected to intercept BP PLC’s blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico by the end of July and the leak could be plugged by early to mid-August, a BP executive said Sunday.

“The anticipation is that toward the end of July is when we’ll be able to intercept the Macondo well,” Kent Wells, senior vice president of exploration and production for BP, told reporters.

Mr. Wells explained, however, that intercepting the well is only the first step to killing the leak and BP still expects to plug it with heavy drilling fluid and cement by early to mid-August.

Mr. Wells also said BP made progress on a delicate undersea operation to install a new containment cap on the leaking wellhead, and planned to activate a new oil-siphoning system later Sunday.

The new oil-capture system, a rig called the Helix Producer, had gone through all necessary startup procedures and was expected to begin siphoning oil, Mr. Wells said.

The new cap and startup of the Helix Producer are critical steps toward an upgraded oil-capture system with four vessels that can collectively handle up to 80,000 barrels of oil per day (3.4 million gallons), according to BP and the Coast Guard.

BP expects to have that four-vessel system in place within two to three weeks, Mr. Wells said.

The hurricane season, which lasts through November, could interfere. There are no storms forecast now. But if one blows through, the ships collecting the oil may have to leave and crude would spew again for days into the water.

On Saturday, BP removed an old, leaky cap on the well and began working to install the bigger cap and seal. When fully operational, the new cap will capture virtually all of the oil spewing from the well, according to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the top U.S. oil spill official.

But several failed attempts to stop the leak have made BP careful to keep expectations grounded.

“We’re pleased with our progress,” said Mr. Wells, who then hastened to add the operation was still expected to last up to six more days.

Officials won’t be satisfied the cap is working until they’ve run tests on whether it can withstand the tremendous pressure of oil pushing up from below the seafloor, Mr. Wells said.

“We’ve tried to work out as many of the bugs as we can. The challenge will come with something unexpected,” he said.

The leak has has been gushing largely unchecked since Saturday. Between 88 million and 174 million gallons have already spilled into the Gulf, according to federal estimates. Wary Gulf residents and officials reserved judgment about BP’s latest effort and said the damage already done to the environment, fishing and tourism will haunt the region for a long time either way.

“At this point, there have been so many ups and downs, disappointments, that everybody down here is like, ‘We’ll believe it when we see it,”’ said Keith Kennedy, a charter boat captain in Venice, La.

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