BP said Monday it hopes to siphon as much as half of the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico and is getting ready to shoot mud into a blown-out well later this week to try and stop all of it.
BP PLC chief operating officer Doug Suttles said at a press conference that the company will never again try to produce oil from the well, though BP did not rule out drilling elsewhere in the reservoir.
"The right thing to do is permanently plug this well, and that's what we will do," Suttles said.
Meanwhile, scientists said they were concerned about the ooze reaching a major ocean current that could carry it through the Florida Keys and up the East Coast.
Suttles said a mile-long tube is funneling a little more than 42,000 gallons of crude a day from a blown-out well into a tanker ship.
That would be about a fifth of the 210,000 gallons the company and the U.S. Coast Guard have estimated are gushing out each day, though scientists who have studied video of the leak say it could be much bigger and even BP acknowledges there's no way to know for sure how much oil there is.
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Suttles said the siphoning does appear to be removing some oil from the surface of the ocean and BP would be pleased if it eventually captures half of it.
"Our efforts offshore are making a big difference now," he said.
In the nearly a month since an oil rig called the Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers, BP has made several failed attempts to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton container that got clogged with icy crystals.
Chemicals being sprayed underwater are helping to disperse the oil and keep it from washing ashore in great quantities. But millions of gallons are already in the Gulf, and researchers said that in recent days they have discovered miles-long underwater plumes of oil that could poison and suffocate sea life across the food chain, with damage that could endure for a decade or more.
Tar balls have been sporadically washing up on beaches in several states, including Mississippi, where at least 60 have been found.
Engineers finally got the contraption to siphon the oil working Sunday after several setbacks. BP PLC engineers remotely guiding robot submersibles had worked since Friday to place the tube into a 21-inch pipe nearly a mile below the sea.
Crews will slowly increase how much the tube is collecting over the next few days. They need to move slowly because they don't want too much frigid seawater entering the pipe, which could combine with gases to form the same ice-like crystals that doomed the previous containment effort.
The company said Monday that it has started drilling a second well to relieve pressure on the blown-out well and also getting ready to try a procedure known as a top-kill that uses a tube to shoot mud and concrete directly into a device on the well called the blowout preventer. Both of those procedures should stop all of the oil.
As engineers worked to get a better handle on the spill, a researcher told The Associated Press that computer models show the oil may have already seeped into a powerful water stream known as the loop current, which could propel it into the Atlantic Ocean. A boat is being sent later this week to collect samples and learn more.
"This can't be passed off as 'it's not going to be a problem,"' said William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science. "This is a very sensitive area. We are concerned with what happens in the Florida Keys."
Hogarth said a computer model shows oil has already entered the loop current, while a second shows the oil is 3 miles from it - still dangerously close. The models are based on weather, ocean current and spill data from the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other sources.
Hogarth said it's still too early to know what specific amounts of oil will make it to Florida, or what damage it might do to the sensitive Keys or beaches on Florida's Atlantic coast. He said claims by BP that the oil would be less damaging to the Keys after traveling over hundreds of miles from the spill site were not mollifying.
Once it reaches the tanker, the oil is being separated from the natural gas and sea water. The natural gas is being burned off, while the crude is being sent to oil terminals.
Meanwhile, scientists warned of the effects of the oil that has already leaked into the Gulf.
Researchers have found more underwater plumes of oil than they can count from the well, said Samantha Joye, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia.
"The discovery of these plumes argues that a lot more oil and gas is coming out of that well every day, and I think everybody has gotten that fact except BP," she said.
Collins reported from Hammond. Associated Press Writers Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans, Shelia Byrd in Jackson, Miss., and Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.