The oil-soaked U.S. Gulf Coast got its first glimmer of hope since BP's offshore blowout, as the company succeeded in placing a cap on the gushing well and funnelling some crude into a drill ship.
The containment effort came as both U.S. President Barack Obama and the London-based international oil giant sought to deflect the storm of anger and criticism that has been directed at both the government and the company.
BP officials said they were capturing a small amount of crude and would be looking to increase the amount over the weekend. As a result, it will take a couple of days before they can assess what proportion of the up to 19,000 barrels per day of crude they would be able to keep from spewing into the ocean.
The U.S. government's point man for the crisis, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, said at a news briefing Saturday that the cap collected about 6,000 of oil on Friday, its first full day of use.
The device, resembling an upside-down funnel, was lowered over the blown-out well more than a kilometre and a half beneath the sea to try to capture oil and direct it to a ship on the surface. BP officials are trying to strike a delicate balance by capturing as much oil as possible without creating too much pressure or allowing the build-up of ice-like hydrates, which form when water and natural gas combine under high pressures and low temperatures.
BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, estimated the containment cap could capture "90-plus per cent" of the gushing crude if it succeeds, but company senior vice-president Kent Wells later said it would be irresponsible to predict the optimum efficiency of the system.
"I don't want us to get ahead of ourselves," Mr. Wells said on a conference call with reporters Friday. "I'm certainly not going to declare success, but I will say I'm encouraged."
BP is planning to complement the containment cap with another system designed to draw oil out of the damaged blowout preventer, a huge valve that sits atop the well. If the containment cap works, it will install a system to allow it to disengage and re-engage more quickly in the event of a hurricane, though that installation will take at least a month.
The progress came as frightened and angry residents from Florida to Louisiana witnessed the increasingly destructive impact of the oil blowout on beaches and wetlands. Mr. Obama made his third visit to the Gulf coast, travelling to Grand Isle, La., where sea birds were dying after being coated with the gooey substance.
Critics have slammed the Obama administration for lax regulations and slow response, and the President himself for failing to show leadership in the crisis. Mr. Obama indicated he understood the pain of the Gulf Coast communities and the anger in the rest of the country.
The President criticized the British oil giant for spending money on advertising and planning to pay dividends to shareholders in the midst of crisis.
"What I don't want to hear is when they're spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising that they're nickeling and diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time," he said.
For its part, BP sought to assure both investors and the broader public that the company has the financial might to cover any resulting costs, which will include containment, cleanup, compensation for economic damages and state and federal fines.
In a conference call with analysts on Friday, BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg and executive director Tony Hayward said the company's first priority will be to meet its financial obligations in the Gulf.
Mr. Hayward has been excoriated in the U.S. for his handling of the disaster and for some of his statements in the aftermath, including telling one television interviewer he looked forward to getting his life back.
He told analysts Friday he accepts the role as "lightning rod" because it allows other BP executives to concentrate on plugging the well and containing and cleaning up the spill.
"I've got a thick Kevlar jacket and I'm so far unscathed," he said. "And as we say, sticks and stones can hurt my bones but words will never break them."
BP executives said the board would decide on the payment of the $3-billion (U.S.) quarterly dividend, but insisted the company has ample resources to meet its obligations in the Gulf and to its shareholders.
"Our first priority today is making things right in the Gulf - in terms of stopping the leak, cleaning the beaches, addressing longer term environmental issues and helping communities to get back on their feet," Mr. Svanberg said.
With a file from The Associated Press