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The cap is off: why that is not a disaster in Gulf oil spill

BP uncapped its gushing well Saturday, allowing more oil to escape as the company tries to put on a better cap. But BP has other ways of capturing oil in the Gulf oil spill even without the cap.

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Scientists have suggested that between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil could be gushing from the wellhead daily.

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Building a better cap

The ramping up of the Helix comes as BP is also trying to bolt a new and better fitting cap to the top of the blowout preventer.

The old cap, which was removed Saturday, was fitted atop the sawed-off stump of the riser pipe. Using remotely controlled robots, engineers will try to unbolt from the blowout preventer that stump of the riser pipe and in its place affix the new cap assembly, which weighs 100 tons and is 30 feet tall.

[Editor's note: The original misstated the height of the new assembly.]

BP officials were hopeful that the cap could be in place as soon as Monday. If it works, the cap – along with the Helix and Q4000 – is expected to collect virtually all the oil leaking from the well, though trickles could still escape if the seal is not perfect.

With all these efforts set to succeed or fail in the next few days, this week is shaping up to be one of the most important since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in late April. That’s partly because hurricane Alex is forcing BP’s hand.

Hurricane Alex's impact

BP and the Coast Guard had wanted to space out these operations, bringing the Helix on line a week ago and then assessing the situation. It is possible that the Helix, Q4000, and old cap might have collected all the oil, making the new cap unnecessary.

But high waves from hurricane Alex delayed the deployment of the Helix and also showed how vulnerable to hurricanes the current collection system is. Even though the hurricane never approached the spill site, BP almost had to abandon its oil collection.

The pipes attached to the old cap were ill suited to weather storms. The new cap will include two flexible riser pipes, which will make it easier for ships to connect to them before and after a hurricane passes. Moreover, the new cap will have more oil-collection capacity.

With a week or more of clear weather forecast, BP and the Coast Guard are scrambling to try to get as many parts of new system as possible ready before another storm hits.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill