NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana - A supertanker began skimming oil in the Gulf of Mexico Friday as the disaster became the worst accidental spill on record, surpassed only by the deliberate release by Iraqi troops during the 1991 Gulf War.
An estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil per day has been gushing out of the ruptured well since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank on April 22 some 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the coast of Louisiana.
A containment system has captured about 557,000 barrels of oil, but rough seas have delayed the deployment of a third vessel which is set to increase capacity from 25,000 barrels to 53,000 barrels a day.
That means an estimated 1.9 to 3.6 million barrels — or 79.5 to 153 million gallons — of oil has now gushed into the Gulf.
Using the high end of that estimate, the spill has now surpassed the 1979 Ixtoc blowout which took nine months to cap and dumped an estimated 3.3 million barrels (140,000 million gallons) into in the Gulf of Mexico.
An estimated six to eight million barrels of oil were released by Iraqi troops who destroyed tankers and oil terminals and set wells ablaze in Kuwait.
It will likely be mid-August at the earliest before the well is permanently capped by injecting mud and cement with the aid of relief wells.
The Taiwanese supertanker dubbed "A Whale" could radically increase the amount of oil crews are able to recover from the Gulf.
"It's a giant tanker which has cuts in the side," BP spokesman Toby Odone told AFP.
"It ingests oil and oily water and then separates out the oil and expels the water."
The giant ship is some 300 yards (275 meters) long and can suck up 21 million gallons of oily water a day.
The small skimming boats which have been patrolling the Gulf for the past 10 weeks have only collected 28.2 million gallons of oily water to date.
Tests began Friday on the tanker to see whether it could safely handle and dispose of the oil and it will take several days before a deployment decision is made, Odone said.
Rough seas caused by the first major storm of the Atlantic season have kept the thousands of ships hired to skim oil, lay boom, carry out controlled burns and move equipment in harbor since Tuesday.
They cannot safely resume work until the swells calm to less than four feet (1.3 meters) and seas were still around seven feet (two meters) Friday morning.
"Obviously the beach cleanup activity continues and it's time for all the boats involved in the skimming operations to undergo repairs and for the teams to work on strategy for when they go out again," Odone said.
The rough seas have also helped break up and weather the oil, which helps keep it from reaching delicate coastal wetlands, Odone said.
Around 428 miles (689 kilometers) of U.S. shorelines have now been oiled as crude spews into the sea at an alarming rate, 73 days into the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Separately, BP's managing director Bob Dudley admitted faults in the firm's spill response during a live online question-and-answer forum.
"The clean-up effort has not been perfect," Dudley confessed in the Google- and YouTube-partnered event. "There have been gaps in the defenses."
The spill "will change the oil industry forever," Dudley said..................................................................................................................hf&rv