White House to Approve New Oil Spill Containment Plan

A long barrier to guard against oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill sits on Elmers Island, La., Friday, June 25, 2010. Full Coverage: Disaster in the Gulf
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
Rich Matthews

As early as tomorrow, the White House could green-light a plan for BP to replace the "top hat" on its underwater oil leak with a "sealing cap" as a way to further reduce the flow of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

"We're getting closer to full containment," said a senior administration official during a White House briefing for reporters.

National Incident Commander Thad Allen dispatched a letter to BP Chief Managing Director Bob Dudley, seeking the company's assessment of the next steps toward plugging the leak.

Choppy waters in the Gulf over the last week have pre-empted efforts to capture more of the oil flowing from the underwater well. But officials say an eight-day window of calmer seas is beginning, during which new steps could be taken.

The administration plan calls for BP to hook up the Helix Producer oil processing ship to the spill, which officials say would double oil capture capacity to 50,000 barrels a day. Simultaneously, the government wants BP to remove the current "top hat" containment system and replace it with a "capping stack" or "sealing cap."

The procedure would require temporarily disconnecting one of the two oil capture vessels on the scene - which would increase the amount of crude flowing freely into the Gulf until the "sealing cap" and Helix Producer were hooked up.

CBSNews.com Special Report: Disaster in the Gulf

Officials said that could increase oil capture capacity to 80,000 barrels a day - more than is thought to be flowing from the well.

The officials also expressed doubts about reports BP could fully plug the leak by July 27th.

"We don't think it's a reasonable expectation of the day," said one of the officials, but the official stopped short of ruling out the possibility - adhering to Allen's policy of trying to promise less and deliver more.

Word of the administration's plan of action came on Day 80 of the oil spill. The White House also announced that First Lady Michelle Obama would make a visit to the Gulf Coast next Monday. She will hear concerns from residents of Panama City Beach, Florida and later deliver a speech to the community about efforts to contain the spill and compensate those who have suffered economic losses.

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/markknoller.
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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.