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Is BP's Well Cap Making Disaster Worse?

Tue, 07/20/2010 - 10:52am
Colleen Long and Matthew Daly, Associated Press Writers

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Scientists huddled Tuesday to analyze data from the ocean floor as they weigh whether a leaking well cap is a sign BP's broken oil well is buckling.

Oil and gas started seeping into the Gulf of Mexico again Sunday night, but this time more slowly, and scientists aren't sure whether the leaks mean the cap that stopped the flow last week is making things worse.

The government's point man on the disaster, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, will decide again later Tuesday whether to continue the test of the experimental cap -- meaning the oil would stay blocked in.

He said Monday the amount of oil leaking was so far inconsequential. But ever since the flow of oil was closed off Thursday, engineers have been glued to underwater cameras and pressure and seismic readings, trying to determine whether the cap is displacing pressure and causing leaks underground, which could make the sea bed unstable and cause the well to collapse.

"As a condition of moving forward with the well-integrity test, BP has to report to us any anomalies and act on those within four hours," Allen said Monday.

Seepage from the sea floor also was detected over the weekend less than two miles away, but Allen said it probably has nothing to do with the well. Oil and gas are known to ooze naturally from fissures in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

At a Monday afternoon briefing in Washington, Allen said BP could keep the cap closed at least another 24 hours, as long as the company remained alert for leaks.

For those whose livelihood depends on clean waters, worries about the cap were tempered by relief that the oil stopped gushing.

"I'm for anything that will stop the oil from coming," said Capt. Ty Fleming, who runs charter fishing trips in Orange Beach, Ala. said Tuesday. "I guess when you've got how many million gallons pouring out before, and now you have less, it's like comparing a coconut hitting you in the head with a raisin. The raisin would be insignificant."

BP and the government had been at odds over the company's desire to simply leave the cap in place and employ it like a giant cork in a bottle until a relief well being drilled deep underground can be used to plug up the well permanently.

Allen initially said his preference was to pipe oil through the cap to tankers on the surface to reduce the slight chance that the buildup of pressure inside the well would cause a new blowout. That plan would require releasing millions more gallons of oil into the ocean for a few days during the transition -- a spectacle BP apparently wants to avoid.

On Monday, Allen budged a bit, saying unless larger problems develop, he's not inclined to open the cap.

Also on the table: Pumping drilling mud through the top of the cap and into the well bore to stop up the oil flow. The idea is similar to the failed top kill plan that couldn't overcome the pressure of the geyser pushing up.

BP said it could work now because there's less oil to fight against, but it wasn't clear how such a method would affect the cap's stability. Allen said the relief well was still the plan for a permanent fix.

BP and the government are still trying to understand why pressure readings from the well are lower than expected. Allen offered two possible explanations: The reservoir the oil is gushing from is dwindling, or there is an undiscovered leak somewhere down in the well.

"I'm not prepared to say the well is shut in until the relief well is done," which is still several weeks away, Allen said. "There are too many uncertainties."

BP and the Coast Guard learned that lesson the hard way after they initially said no oil was coming from the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig after it exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Even after it became clear there was a leak, the company and its federal overseers drastically underestimated its size for weeks.

A BP employee told government investigators Tuesday that weeks before the explosion, he reported a leak of hydraulic fluid in a critical safety device that could have prevented the disaster.

Ronald Sepulvado, a BP well site leader, told a panel of government investigators in suburban New Orleans that he didn't know if federal regulators were notified of the leak, as required.

A federal regulation requires drilling operations to be suspended if a blowout preventer pod isn't fully functional, but BP didn't stop drilling. Sepulvado said the safety device passed the last pressure test performed 11 days before the explosion.

Work on a permanent plug is moving steadily, with crews drilling into the side of the ruptured well from deep underground. By next week, they could start blasting in mud and cement to block off the well for good. Killing the well deep underground works more reliably than bottling it up with a cap.

Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have gushed into the Gulf over the past three months in one of America's worst environmental crises.

BP PLC said the cost of dealing with the spill has now reached nearly $4 billion. The company said it has made payments totaling $207 million to settle claims for damages. Almost 116,000 claims have been submitted and more than 67,500 payments have been made. BP stock was down slightly Monday.

"I'm hoping that they'll get everything cleaned up within the next one to two years. Let's hope things will get back to normal," said Terry Lash, manager of Doc's Seafood Shack & Oyster Bar in Orange Beach, Ala. "We're hurting really bad, but there are other restaurants that are worse than we are."

Daly reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Erica Werner in Washington, David Dishneau in New Orleans, Michael Kunzelman in Kenner and Phuong Le in Orange Beach, Ala., contributed to this report.

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