NEW ORLEANS — BP began slowly burning oil siphoned from a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday as part of its plans to more than triple the amount of crude it can stop from reaching the sea, the company said.
Energy giant BP PLC said it had burned 52,500 gallons of oil by noon Wednesday using a specialized flare system. Oil and gas siphoned from the well first reached a semi-submersible drilling rig on the surface of the Gulf around 1 a.m.
Once that gas reaches the rig, it will be mixed with compressed air, shot down a specialized boom made by Schlumberger Ltd. and ignited at sea. It's the first time this particular burner has been deployed in the Gulf of Mexico.
BP spokesman Tristan Vanhegan said engineers were still working to optimize the system, which the firm previously said could incinerate anywhere from 210,000 gallons of oil to 420,000 gallons of oil daily once it's fully operational.
Under pressure from the Coast Guard, the energy firm is attempting to expand its ability to trap leaking oil before it reaches the water. Already, oil and gas are being siphoned from a containment cap sitting over the well head and flowing to a drill ship sitting above it in the Gulf of Mexico.
Adding the burner is part of BP's plan to expand its containment system so it can capture as much as 2.2 million gallons of oil a day by late June, or nearly 90 percent of what a team of government scientists have estimated is the maximum flow out the well.
Only a relief well, which BP says will be completed in August, will completely stop the flow of oil. Still, comments from President Barack Obama and federal officials have raised expectations that the flow of oil could be significantly contained by the end of the month.
The Coast Guard has been pushing the British energy firm to bring more equipment and boats to the scene to deal with the leak. But plans remain subject to uncertainty.
An earlier containment box clogged with an icelike slush. A smaller "top hat" containment was abandoned. Attempting to clog the blowout preventer with junk did not work. Neither did forcing heavy drilling mud down the well bore to stanch the flow.
While the new containment cap placed on the well has been collecting more than 630,000 gallons of oil daily, the system has its own limits. A single bolt of lightning Tuesday struck the drilling ship collecting oil from the cap, started a fire and forced oil collection to stop for hours.
Lightning storms are the least of the weather worries as the Gulf enters hurricane season.