A rare public exchange of letters between National Incident Commander in charge of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill Thad Allen and Robert Dudley, who is leading the mop-up operations at BP, showed the government has been pressing the oil major to come up with plans to accelerate its collection of the oil.

It began on Thursday when Admiral Allen wrote to Mr. Dudley saying, “We are entering a critical stage in the Deepwater Horizon response where key decisions will be made in executing plans for total collection of oil at the wellhead and for potentially securing the well completely.”

Not mincing his words, Admiral Allen on Thursday demanded that Mr. Dudley provide him, within 24 hours, with a detailed timeline outlining BP's plans to affix onto the well a second cap — called a “capping stack” — that could significantly increase the containment capacity of the system. Paradoxically, the process for deployment of the capping stack would, Admiral Allen acknowledged, increase amount oil leaking temporarily. To mitigate this heightened flow, the Admiral asked Mr. Dudley to explain his plans to use a third containment ship, the Helix Producer. “I must have knowledge of the steps and decision points involved; mitigation efforts to be implemented; and contingency plans if these efforts are not successful,” he emphasised.

After scrambling to provide the Admiral with a response within the deadline, Mr. Dudley said in his letter that though BP had initially scheduled the capping stack installation to follow the Helix Producer beginning containment operations, “as weather has impacted our ability to execute these activities in series we … have proposed that the capping stack procedure be implemented in parallel with the start-up of the Helix Producer.”

After review Admiral Allen approved the plan, saying later to media: “After reviewing Bob Dudley's response to my July 8 letter … I approved BP's plan to simultaneously install the Helix Producer and ‘capping stack' containment mechanisms, which will require temporary suspension of the current top hat containment system.”

The Admiral added that he had validated this plan because the capacity for oil containment when the installations were complete would be “far greater than the capabilities we have achieved using current systems”. He also noted that weather forecasts had turned more favourable over the last few days and “will provide the working conditions necessary for these transitions to be successfully completed without delays”.

Admiral Allen said the transition to the new containment infrastructure could begin “in the next days but will take seven to ten days to complete”. He also said the entire process, “once we start unbolting until we're in a position to put the new cap on, could be three to four days”.

The Admiral conceded that there would be a spike in the outflow volume, saying: “There will be a period of time where the Discover Enterprise will have to move off station to allow us to put the new capping device on. So the amount they've been able to recover which is roughly around let's say 15,000 barrels a day will have to be released while we're putting the new cap on.”

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