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BP begins switch of oil containment caps

HOUSTON - BP removed a containment cap atop its gushing Gulf of Mexico oil leak yesterday and began taking steps to replace it with a bigger cap and seal that could fully contain the crude.

"What I'd say to you at this point is we're on plan," Kent Wells, senior vice president of exploration and production, said Saturday afternoon. Earlier yesterday he said it would take four to seven days to install the new cap and seal. In the interim, oil will gush from the leak.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the top U.S. official overseeing the spill response, had said the cap switch could be finished by Monday. But BP's plan, which Allen approved late Friday, showed four to seven days.

Wells said the longer stretch allows for unexpected problems. He added that BP has another cap ready to install if the cap and seal doesn't work.

The old cap was removed at 1:37 a.m., BP spokesman Mark Proegler said. A live video feed on BP's website showed the cap hanging from a line used to lift it from the oil gusher. A different feed showed an underwater robot starting the next phase of the switch, which Wells said aims to unbolt a flange and the jagged remnant of a pipe that the former cap covered so a new flange can be installed.

The new cap, which had yet to be lowered to the seabed, would later be connected to the new flange, Wells said.

Meanwhile, a rig installed June 16, the Q4000, continued to siphon and burn off an average of 8,000 barrels a day, he said.

BP is doing final hookups and tests of another rig, the Helix Producer, that can collect up to another 25,000 barrels a day and hopes it could begin operating later today.

Once the new cap is installed, it could capture the rest of the crude pouring from the seabed, Wells said, which would be funneled to vessels on the surface.

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