A relief well being drilled deep into the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico to shut down the gushing well could be completed ahead of a long-set deadline of mid-August only if conditions are ideal, government and BP officials said Thursday.
The relief well is currently the best hope for stanching the oil leak set off by the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 workers and began an environmental catastrophe for the region.
BP critics pounced at the news, CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.
"It's just another example of doublespeak from BP," Jefferson Parish Councilman John Young told CBS News. "I hope it's true, but I'm not going to hold my breath."
One theory why BP's now hinting at an earlier finish is because for every leaked barrel, BP faces potential fines of $4,300, Strassmann reports. At 60,000 barrels - the current estimate - that's $258 million a day. Finish by July 27, rather than Aug. 15, that's a potential savings of almost $5 billion.
"If BP should be able to cap the well here in July, I think that's probably worth $10 billion into their share price," analyst Andy Lipow told CBS News.
National Incident Commander and retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Thursday that the relief well is expected to intercept and penetrate the Deepwater Horizon well pipe about 18,000 feet below sea level within seven to 10 days.
"It could happen, but I'm not going to assume that. I've been around you folks long enough to know that we need to under-promise and over-deliver," Allen said at a media briefing Thursday.
But they won't know how long it will take to stop the oil until they get there. The gushing well has several concentric rings, and oil could be coming up through multiple rings, Allen said.
The plan is to pump heavy mud and then cement into the well to overcome the upward pressure of the huge oil reservoir below.
If the oil is coming through the outer ring of the well, then they will have to pump in mud and cement to stop that layer first. Then they would have to drill through the hardened cement and repeat the process in each ring until they reach the center pipe and do it again.
That scenario would push into the middle of August, which is the timeline the company and government officials have held to for weeks, despite repeated reports that the drilling was ahead of schedule and the oil could be stopped as soon as late July.
"If you have to exhaust all means for the ways that hydrocarbons are coming up the pipe, then that puts you into middle August," Allen said.
If the oil is only coming up the center pipe, then it's possible to stop the leak sooner.
"We're a bit ahead of schedule, but it just takes one storm to change that," BP spokesman Scott Dean said.
Though workers are getting "tantalizingly close to the well," they are also entering a delicate part of the operation that requires slow, methodical action, Dean said. That's why the company is sticking with mid-August.
Shaving even days off timeline would stop millions of gallons of oil from escaping into the Gulf. The broken well has spewed between 86 and 169 million gallons of oil, according to federal estimates. That's enough oil to fill about 3.4 million standard bathtubs.
Allen declined to comment about BP's internal workings when asked whether speculation about a July goal could be tied to the release of the British oil giant's second-quarter earnings on July 27. Company managing director Robert Dudley told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that a "perfect case" would have the oil well capped between July 20 and July 27, though he said it was unlikely.
"In a perfect world with no interruptions, it's possible to be ready to stop the well between July 20 and July 27," Dudley told the Journal ($).
But he added that the "perfect case" is threatened by the hurricane season and remains "unlikely."
The official target date, offered by both BP and the U.S. Coast Guard, remains mid-August.
Officials at the media briefing in Theodore, Ala., also said that crews plan to remove the "top hat" device that is currently siphoning oil from the well and install a "sealing cap" in its place.
That will result in a freer flow of oil for a period of time, but should result in greater containment, reports CBS Radio News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. They are also close to connecting the flow line to the Helix Producer ship, which will capture another 25,000 barrels of oil daily.
If everything works as planned, officials hope the total capture capacity could increase to 80,000 barrels a day with the sealing cap.
According to the Journal report, the company's new goal for the relief wells coincides with the its second-quarter earnings report - due out July 27 - as officials are eager to show investors that the energy giant has gained control over the financial liabilities associated with the spill.
The company is also looking to show progress on its response efforts ahead of the July 20 meeting between President Obama and new British Prime Minister David Cameron.
In addition to trying to speed up completion of the dual relief wells being drilled to meet the leaking Macondo well - long considered the best hope for cutting off the gusher - BP is already considering "backups to the backup" in case that operation fails.
Those backup plans were developed under pressure from the federal government, the Journal reported, and include a scheme "connecting the rogue well to existing pipelines in two nearby underwater gas and oil fields."
BP's stock is closing in on a second straight weekly gain as the relief wells get closer to the gusher and the company has taken steps to reassure business partners in the Middle East and Russia that it remains a viable company.
"My board of directors is the American people," Allen said.
Even if everything goes well deep below the seafloor, the weather will have to cooperate. Lingering tropical weather that began last week with the faraway Hurricane Alex halted offshore skimming operations and caused high seas that have delayed the hookup of a third vessel expected to suck oil from the gushing well head.
Another tropical depression formed in the Gulf on Wednesday and was closely following the path of Alex to the coast at the border of Texas and Mexico. It was expected to have little effect on the eastern Gulf.
Improved weather was forecast this weekend before more rough weather comes, offering a precious window to speed up efforts to capture more leaking oil.
That could help crews at sea attempting to hook up a third containment vessel to collect oil from the gushing well head at the sea floor. Between 86 million and 168 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf since the rig Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers. Oil has washed up on the shores of all five Gulf states, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and the latest - Texas.
BP has high hopes to clean it all eventually. Mark DeVries, BP's deputy incident commander in Mobile, envisions a time when no one can tell what hit the beaches during the summer of oil.
"That's our commitment - to return the beaches to the state they were before," Devries said. "We're referring to it as polishing the beaches."
Allen also said Thursday morning that he has asked BP to respond within 24 hours with detailed plans to place a new containment cap to place over the well head. The current cap is flexible, allowing some oil to escape.
In theory, the new cap should collect most of the gushing oil to be sent to the surface ships for removal or burning. But switching to the new cap would temporarily allow more oil to escape.
Another hope for collecting oil from the surface will be tested more this week: The "A Whale," a giant skimmer converted from an oil tanker, is supposed to be able to clean more than 21 million gallons of oily water a day.
But tests last weekend were inconclusive because of choppy seas and Allen said Thursday that he doubts its effectiveness scooping up numerous smaller slicks.