Earlier this month, BP boldly predicted the oil gushing from the bottom of the sea would be reduced to a "relative trickle" within days, and President Barack Obama told the nation last week that as much as 90 percent would soon be captured. But those goals seemed wildly optimistic Thursday after yet another setback a mile underwater.
A deep-sea robot bumped into the cap collecting oil from the well, forcing a temporary halt Wednesday to the company's best effort yet to contain the leak. The cap was back in place Thursday, but frustration and skepticism were running high along the Gulf Coast.
BP's pronouncements have "absolutely no credibility," Jefferson Parish Councilman John Young said. The latest problem shows "they really are not up to the task and we have more bad news than we have good news."
Even before the latest setback, the government's worst-case estimates suggested the cap and other equipment were capturing less than half of the oil leaking from the sea floor. And in recent days, the "spillcam" video continued to show gas and oil billowing from the blown-out well.
BP officials said they sympathized, and laid out in new detail the company's plans to have additional ships in place that can capture even more oil.
"For BP, our intent is to restore the Gulf the way it was before it happened," BP managing director Bob Dudley, who has taken over the company's spill operations, said in Washington.
In other developments:
- The spill began arriving in sheets of oil on the Florida coast, forcing the first closing of a beach in the state to swimmers since the accident more than nine weeks ago, and fouled some of Mississippi's most fertile coastal waters.
- The federal judge who struck down the Obama administration's six-month ban on deep-water drilling in the Gulf refused to stay his ruling while the government appeals.
- Environmental groups asked the court to release additional information about U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman's holdings in oil-related stocks.
- Dudley said BP had asked James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration during President Bill Clinton's administration, to review its response to the oil spill and recommend improvements.
At nearly every important juncture since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers, the government's and BP's estimates on the size of the spill, its effect on wildlife and the time frame for containing it have spectacularly missed the mark.
On June 8, BP chief operating office Doug Suttles said the spill should be reduced to a "relative trickle" in less than a week. BP later said it would take more time for the spill to reach a trickle.
Obama used the 90 percent figure last week in his first address from the Oval Office and after meeting with BP officials at the White House, saying the company had informed him that was how much of the oil could be kept out of the water within weeks.
"It just doesn't look like that's in the cards," said Ed Overton, a retired professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University. "We're not even close to that, and the word today is that they were capturing less than the day before. I was hoping the president knew something that the rest of us didn't know."
BP said Thursday it was gradually ramping back up to capture about 700,000 gallons a day with the cap, and burning off an additional 438,000 a day using an incinerator ship. Worst-case government estimates are that about 2.5 million gallons are leaking from the well, though no one really knows for sure.
"This is a disaster that (has) a very low probability of happening to any oil company. It has happened," BP managing director Bob Dudley, who has taken over the company's spill operations, told NBC News on Thursday. "We need to pull it apart piece by piece by piece, undertsand what happened, learn from it, disseminate that knowledge around the world and through the industry so that it never ever happens again."
By mid- to late July, the company hopes to have the capacity to capture up to 3.3 million gallons a day, if that much is flowing, Curry said.
It cannot all be done immediately, Curry said, because the logistics of positioning four giant ships capable of collecting oil and connecting them to the seafloor are complicated. "There's a limit to the number of ships in the world that do these type of things," he said.
None of those efforts is expected to stop the leak entirely. The soonest that would happen is August, which is when BP says relief wells being drilled through thousands of feet of rock beneath the seabed will reach the gusher.
That seemed a long way off to many.
In Florida, officials closed a quarter-mile stretch of Pensacola Beach not far from the Alabama line to swimmers when thick pools of oil washed up, the first time a beach in the state has been closed because of the spill.
Lifeguard Collin Cobia wore a red handkerchief over his nose and mouth to block the oil smell. "It's enough to knock you down," he said.
In Mississippi, which has so far been largely spared from the spill, a large patch of oil oozed into Mississippi Sound, the fertile waters between the state's barrier islands and its mainland.
BP has its supporters, or at least those still giving it the benefit of the doubt.
"I think BP has done more than any oil company has ever done for this kind of spill," said Stephen "Scooter" Resweber, a 62-year-old councilman in Grand Isle, La. "If they are saying 90 percent, they must be pretty confident. That's putting your money where your mouth is."
Others weren't happy about the situation but declined to second-guess the BP engineers.
"I have no clue at all about the correct way to stop it," said Rocky Ditcharo, a seafood dock owner in Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish. "'Powerless' — that's a good word for it."
Meanwhile, judge Feldman refused Thursday to put on hold his decision that blocked the Obama administration from enforcing its six-month ban on deepwater oil drilling after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Feldman in New Orleans rejected a request by the Obama administration to stay his decision that allowed deepwater drilling to resume after the Department of Interior ordered it halted temporarily when the BP well began gushing oil more than two months ago.
The Obama administration can still ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for a stay.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had asked for a stay until his office could issue a new moratorium that fits within the parameters set out by the judge earlier this week.
Review of Alaska project
Also Thursday, Salazar said his department is reviewing BP's plans for a drilling project off Alaska.
"We are looking into the issue right now," Salazar told lawmakers at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee hearing, when asked about a New York Times report that BP's planned Liberty project may not have received sufficient environmental review.
Michael Bromwich, the head of the recently renamed Minerals Management Service, said his office has reached out to its regional office in Alaska to get more details about the project's oversight.
The Times quoted federal government scientists who questioned a 2007 exemption granted to BP to proceed with its Liberty field, which is to be drilled from an island built by BP three miles off Alaska's shoreline in the Beaufort Sea.
"The whole process for approving Liberty was bizarre," one of the scientists said.