A special cap is capturing more oil pouring from a damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico, but that bit of hope was tempered by a sharp dose of pragmatism as a US government official warned the crisis could stretch into the autumn.
The inverted funnel-like cap is being closely watched for whether it can make a serious dent in the flow of new oil. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, overseeing the government's response to the spill, reserved judgment, saying he didn't want to risk offering false encouragement.
Instead he warned that the battle to contain the oil is likely to last longer into 2010. The cap will trap only so much of the oil, and relief wells being drilled will not be completed until August. In the meantime, oil will continue to spew out.
"But even after that, there will be oil out there for months to come," Admiral Allen said. "This will be well into the autumn. This is a siege across the entire Gulf. This spill is holding everybody hostage, not only economically but physically. And it has to be attacked on all fronts."
Since it was placed over the busted well on Thursday, the cap has been siphoning an increasing amount of oil. On Saturday, it funnelled about 441,000 gallons to a tanker on the surface, up from about 250,000 gallons on Friday.
But it is not clear how much is still escaping from the well that federal authorities at one point estimated was leaking between 500,000 and a million gallons a day. Since the spill began nearly seven weeks ago, roughly 23 million to 49 million gallons have leaked into the Gulf.
The prospect that the crisis could stretch beyond summer was devastating to residents along the Gulf, who are seeing thicker globs of oil show up in increasing volume all along the coastline.
BP chief executive Tony Hayward said he believes the cap is likely to capture "the majority, probably the vast majority" of the oil gushing from the well. The gradual increase in the amount being captured is deliberate, in an effort to prevent water from getting inside and forming a frozen slush that foiled a previous containment attempt.
Admiral Allen was reluctant to characterise the degree of progress, saying much more had to be done. "We need to underpromise and overdeliver," he said.