NEW ORLEANS - The far-flung slick from the blown-out well spewing oil from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has broken up into hundreds and even thousands of patches of oil that could inflict damage that persists for years, officials said Monday.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man for the crisis, said the breakup has complicated the cleanup.
"Dealing with the oil spill on the surface is going to go on for a couple of months," he said at a briefing in Washington. But "long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats and stuff will be years."
Allen said that as BP captured more of the oil, the government should be able to offer better estimates of the flow undersea by tracking the flow to the surface.
Allen said the containment cap that was installed by BP late last week is now collecting about 460,000 gallons of oil a day of the approximately 600,000 to 1.2 million gallons believed to be spewing from the well a mile underwater.
The amount of oil captured is being slowly ramped up as more vents on the cap are closed.
Crews are moving carefully to avoid a dangerous pressure buildup and to prevent the formation of the icy crystals that thwarted a previous effort to contain the leak. The captured oil is being pumped to a ship on the surface.
"I think it's going fairly well," Allen said.
BP said it plans to replace the cap - perhaps this month or early next month - with a slightly bigger one that will provide a tighter fit and 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.
BP and government officials acknowledged it is difficult to say exactly how much oil is spewing from the well, and thus how much is still flowing into the water. BP spokesman Robert Wine said the figures being discussed are estimates, some of which have been provided by the government.
At least one expert, Ira Leifer, who is part of a government team charged with estimating the flow rate, is convinced that the operation has made the leak worse.
Leifer said in an interview Monday that, judging from the video feed of the undersea gusher, cutting the pipe to install the cap may have led to a several-fold increase in the flow rate from the well.
"The well pipe clearly is fluxing way more than it did before," said Leifer, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University professor of environmental sciences, suggested it is too early for anyone to claim victory. The spill is the biggest in U.S. history.
He said he doesn't believe BP will have turned the corner until it sees a significant flow from the well stopped. "And it is not entirely obvious to me that that is happening," Overton said.
The video of the leak continued to show a big brown billowing cloud of oil and gas 5,000 feet below the surface.
In Washington, President Obama sought to reassure Americans that "we will get through this crisis."
"This will be contained," he said. "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."
Allen indicated that cleaning up the mess could prove to be more complex than previously thought.
"Because what's happened over the last several weeks, this spill has disaggregated itself," Allen said. "We're no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill. We're dealing with an aggregation of hundreds or thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different directions."
Meanwhile, crews worked furiously to skim, scour, and chemically disperse the substance from the water.
Tony Wood, the director of the National Spill Control School at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, said BP's success at containing some of the leaking oil would not dramatically reduce the amount of time it would take to clean up the gulf.
"We have a large volume still escaping," he said. "Cleanup levels up to twice as large as we have right now will go on for at least a year." He added: "The reality is that most of the spill, the vast majority of the spill, is still well offshore."
Harsh Words From Obama
President Obama says he has been talking closely to Gulf Coast fishermen and experts on BP's catastrophic oil spill not for academic reasons but "so I know whose ass to kick."
Obama, in an interview with NBC to be aired on Tuesday's Today show, defended his engagement with the crisis that began with the April 20 explosion on a BP-leased oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and starting the nation's largest-ever oil spill.
Some have criticized the president for not engaging enough on the spill, even though he has been to the region three times since the disaster. "I was down there a month ago before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the gulf," Obama told NBC's Matt Lauer. "I was meeting with fishermen in the rain talking about what a potential crisis this could be."
- Associated Press