- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (AP) | Tens of thousands of gallons more oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday after an undersea robot bumped into the cap that had been containing some of the crude, forcing BP to remove it.

The setback, yet another in the nine-week effort to stop the gusher, came as the Obama administration tried to figure out how to resurrect a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling and thick pools of oil washed up on beaches in Florida.

Removing the containment cap meant about 29,000 extra gallons of oil an hour were spewing, based on the record amount that had been captured in the previous 24 hours. Under the current worst-case scenario, as much as 104,000 gallons an hour - 2.5 million gallons a day - is flowing when there are no devices stopping some of it.

The robot bumped the cap just before 10 a.m. on Wednesday, sending gas rising through a vent that carries warm water down to prevent icelike crystals from forming inside it, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.

Crews were checking to see if crystals had formed before putting the cap back on. BP spokesman Bill Salvin could not say how long that might take.

A similar problem doomed the effort to put a bigger containment device over the blown-out well in May. BP had to abandon the four-story box after the crystals called hydrates clogged it, threatening to make it float away.

The smaller cap, which worked fine until now, had been in place since early June and was sucking oil up to a ship on the surface. To get it there, though, crews had to slice away a section of the leaking pipe, meaning the flow of oil could be stronger now than before.

Before the problem with the cap, it had collected about 700,000 gallons of oil in 24 hours. Another 438,000 gallons was burned on the surface by a different system that was not affected.

Anywhere from 67 million to 127 million gallons has spilled since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and blew out the well 5,000 feet underwater. BP PLC was leasing the rig from owner Transocean Ltd.

Also on Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed BP claims documents, after its chairman said the company has not complied with requests to provide information on its payments. The committee also voted, 16-11, to approve a bill eliminating limits on the amount of money that vessel owners had to pay for deaths and injuries. The bill would allow family members to collect payments for non-monetary damages such as pain and suffering.

The full House also voted 420-1 to approve legislation that would give subpoena power to the presidential commission investigating the spill. Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, cast the only no vote. President Obama has appointed the seven-member commission to investigate the spill.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration plotted its next steps after U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans overturned a moratorium on new drilling, saying the government simply assumed that because one rig exploded, the others pose an imminent danger, too.

Judge Feldman, appointed by President Reagan in 1983, has reported extensive investments in the oil and gas industry, including owning less than $15,000 of Transocean stock, according to financial disclosure reports for 2008, the most recent available. He did not return calls for comment on his investments.

The White House promised an immediate appeal of his ruling. The Interior Department imposed the moratorium last month in the wake of the BP disaster, halting approval of any new permits for deep-water projects and suspending drilling on 33 exploratory wells.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement that within the next few days he would issue a new order imposing a moratorium that eliminates any doubt it is needed and appropriate.

“It’s important that we don’t move forward with new drilling until we know it can be done in a safe way,” he told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.

Several companies, including Shell and Marathon Oil, said they would await the outcome of any appeals before they start drilling again.

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