PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — The geyser of oil spewing from the sea floor is tapering off more day by day with the help of a wellhead cap, but there’s no quick fix for containing much of the crude that has already escaped and is spreading across the Gulf of Mexico.

The cap is now keeping up to 462,000 gallons of oil a day from leaking into the Gulf, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said today in Washington. That’s up from about 441,000 gallons on Saturday and about 250,000 on Friday.

Federal authorities have estimated the ruptured pipe is leaking between 500,000 gallons and 1 million gallons a day.

The battle against the oil already in the Gulf now involves “hundreds of thousands” of individual patches, said Allen, the government’s point man for the spill response. Small vessels in the area have been enlisted to help capture those patches using skimmers.

The patchy oil slick now stretches from 100 miles east of the Texas-Louisiana border to near the middle of the Florida Panhandle, and down to the open sea about 150 miles west of Tampa, Fla., officials said.

Allen elaborated on comments over the weekend that the spill cleanup would last into fall, acknowledging the full cleanup would take much longer.

“Dealing with the oil spill on the surface will take a couple of months,” he said, but the process of getting oil out of marshlands and other habitats “will be years.”

In Florida, tar balls continued to roll onto Pensacola Beach this morning and left a distinct line in the sand from the high-rise condos above as the sun rose. Beach walkers had to stay between the line of dime- and quarter-size tar balls and the retreating surf or risk getting the gummy, rust-staining gunk stuck to their feet.

Jody Haas, a tourist from Aurora, Ill., was among the few walking the beach early today after a crowded weekend here. Haas, who had visited the beach before, said it was not the same.

“It was pristine, gorgeous, white sand,” she said. “This spot is light compared to some of the other spots farther down and (the tar) is just everywhere here. It’s just devastating, awful.”

Officials put out a report late Sunday that dead, oiled birds had been found in Texas but retracted it this morning. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Nancy Brown blamed the mistake on a clerical error.

BP said today that the cost of the response has reached about $1.25 billion. The company said the figure does not include $360 million for a project to build six sand berms meant to protect Louisiana’s wetlands from spreading oil.

It’s not clear how much oil is still escaping from the well. The inverted funnel-like cap is being closely watched for whether it can make a serious dent in the flow of new oil. The flow rates were developed by the U.S. government, which is no longer relying on the London-based oil giant for estimates.

More oil is being collected as more vents on the cap atop the blown well are closed. The process is gradual because crews need to keep water and gas from creating a slush that thwarted a previous containment effort.

The captured oil is being pumped to a ship on the surface. BP planned to bring larger vessels into the area and to “create a more permanent connection that can be disconnected easily in case we have a hurricane or bad weather later on in the hurricane season.”

If the connection has to be broken because of a hurricane, he acknowledged, “We’re going to be having oil coming up to the surface again.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that penalties eventually leveled against BP would be based on how much oil has been spilled, and that the government will use its own figures.

Allen said BP needs to make improvements on getting money to individuals and businesses been harmed by the spill.

“We’d like them to get better at claims,” Allen said.

Individuals have begun to get partial payments, but Allen said the government is pushing for that to be “routinized” so that people know to expect regular checks. The problems with business claims are worse, he said.

Because such claims require more complicated documentation and processing, they are going slower and government officials were meeting with BP on Monday to try to speed it up, Allen said.

“That appears that may be a little cumbersome right now,” he said. “We think they need to do that better and quicker.”

“It’s not a core competency of BP so we’re trying to get them some help,” Allen said.

Allen wouldn’t directly answer whether he trusted BP, but he said the company is cooperating with the government’s demands for action and information.

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