Oil giant BP succeeded Sunday in connecting a mile-long pipe to help capture what it hoped will be a majority of the oil flowing from a damaged well into the Gulf of Mexico — "an important step" toward capping the massive spill, the company said, but not a complete solution.

Share story

MIAMI — Oil giant BP succeeded Sunday in connecting a mile-long pipe to help capture what it hoped will be a majority of the oil flowing from a damaged well into the Gulf of Mexico — “an important step” toward capping the massive spill, the company said, but not a complete solution.

The company initially connected the suction pipe for about four hours just after midnight Sunday, sending some oil, gas and water to an oil tanker 5,000 feet above the sea floor, but the pipe then was dislodged. It was reconnected late Sunday morning.

“We’re looking to optimize this over the next couple days to try to produce as much oil and gas as we can,” said Kent Wells, BP’s senior vice president for exploration and production. While the amount of oil being captured was increasing gradually, he added, the company had not measured it.

The effort doesn’t plug the massive oil leak that began when an offshore rig caught fire April 20 and sank two days later, but it’s the first success in almost a month to begin capping the erupting flow. A similar effort had failed early Saturday.

Despite BP’s success Sunday, scientists say the large swatch of oil covering the Gulf already has had a monumental ecological impact.

Satellite images taken Saturday by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory show the oil may have entered the Gulf Loop current, which could pull it through the Florida Keys and into South Florida, according to an analysis by Mitch Roffer, an oceanographer who runs Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service and has been tracking the spill.

“I think the threat to South Florida is real and we should get ready,” said Igor Kamenkovich, associate professor at the Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, who had not seen the images. “It’s hard to predict, but if it gets in the loop current it can happen as quickly as seven to 10 days. … If it does happen, it is bad news for us.”

At the oil-leak site, a tube five feet long and four inches in diameter was pushed into a leaking riser that’s 21 inches in diameter — the source of most of the spill. The inserted tube has three large flexible rubber diaphragms to keep it in the riser and block oil and water from mixing; BP officials, however, said the riser continues to leak some oil.

The pipe is full of nitrogen, which is slowly being pulled back to let oil and gas flow in while keeping water from entering. Methanol, a kind of antifreeze, also is being pumped into the riser to stop crystals from forming that could block gas and oil from flowing to the ship. Crystals got in the way of a previous attempt to lower a 78-ton containment cap over the leak site.

The surface tanker will separate the oil, gas and water mixture for storage and eventual offloading. Some of the collected gas was burned overnight through a flare system on the tanker. BP officials weren’t able to specify Sunday how much the tanker can hold.

“It’s a positive move, but let’s keep it in context. We’re not shutting off the flow of oil from this well, and we will do that when we do the top-kill procedure,” said Wells, the BP senior vice president.

The “top-kill” involves jamming up to 2 million gallons of a heavy-density, mudlike liquid into channels leading to the oil well, effectively overpowering the leak before adding cement to seal it. BP officials said it would attempt a “top kill” in a week to 10 days.

“The more mud we get into the well, the lower the rate and pressure will be” of the spill, Wells said.

A containment vessel — four feet in diameter and five feet long — or “top hat” that engineers would try to place over the main leaking pipe also is sitting on the sea floor as another option. Oil captured in it also would be pumped to a barge.

BP also has started drilling two relief wells, which experts say is the most fail-proof, long-term solution to stopping the spill. That process will not be completed until August.

At least 210,000 gallons of oil have been gushing into the Gulf each day since the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and some scientists believe the leak may be 10 times as bad. On Sunday, scientists said the discovery of large submerged oil plumes — one up to 10 miles long — raised fears of more damage to the Gulf. They also raised questions about when large amounts of crude might hit shore. Occasional tar balls have been seen on beaches in a few states, but there have been no reports of large amounts of oil washing ashore.