Amid leak worries, feds and BP focus on killing Gulf well

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 19, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The government and BP continue to monitor leaks that appeared this weekend to be an ominous threat to their effort to contain the gush of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. But they've also renewed their focus on permanently capping the well that killed 11 people, fouled the Gulf of Mexico and wreaked economic havoc on the region.

Thad Allen, the top federal official overseeing efforts to contain oil in the Gulf of Mexico, said Monday for the first time it's a possibility — albeit slim — that a containment cap installed last week could remain in place to keep oil from flowing from the BP well until a relief well is completed.

Allen cautioned that it would be premature to make any promises that they'd keep the well capped, considering some of the anomalies they're seeing under water as part of an ongoing well integrity test.

Those include methane gas seeping from the ocean floor three kilometers from the well, and bubbles — which had traces of methane — seen escaping near the well. They also appear to have a small leak from a gasket on the capping equipment, Allen said, but do not think it is serious. They have nothing to suggest there's a threat to the well bore, Allen said, "but we are running every one of these anomalies down."

However, Allen has authorized another 24 hours of testing, and said they would carefully evaluate every step of the way whether keeping the cap in place is the best option as they move forward toward a permanent relief well. That well could be complete by the end of the month; it would take additional time to cement it in and kill it for good.

Monday's decision to move forward with the testing capped a tense weekend of negotiations between the company and the government.

Both Allen and Wells explained away the tension as part of the scientific discourse over how to proceed, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was more willing to acknowledge the strain. The administration had some concerns "about commitments that BP had made that we did not feel that they were adequately living up to in terms of that monitoring," Gibbs said Monday.

"That was dealt with last night on a call that lasted late into the evening where we believe that we're getting the type of overall monitoring, particularly the seismic and the monitoring with the remotely operated vehicle, so that we can look at each of these different steps," he said.

In his briefing Monday, Allen also hastened to add if anything looks unusual, they will end the testing immediately and revert to the system the containment cap was designed for capturing the flow of oil and piping it to vessels on the surface.

"We are going on a day-to-day basis," he said. "I don't think there's any set course of action based on the conditions we're encountering, but the overall goal is the relief well."

BP also announced Monday a new possible solution for permanently stopping the flow of oil from the well: a so-called "static kill." The current pressure readings and information they've gleaned from the ongoing integrity test show that it may now be possible to use the procedure, said Kent Wells, a senior vice president with BP.

"This is very much in its infancy, this is not something we've approved to do," Wells said, but said that the company was pursuing it as one of several potential options.

Over the weekend, Allen sent a letter demanding that BP inform him within four hours of any new leaks as well as provide a written explanation of the company's plans for the containment cap going forward.

But the government's scientific team remains concerned that the April 20 explosion and fire that killed 11 people and sunk the Deepwater Horizon may also have damaged the well deep below the floor of the ocean. They've feared that closing the containment cap could worsen conditions by forcing oil out of the well, and up the surrounding rock to the ocean's floor.

If the leaking worsened, little could be done to halt the uninterrupted flow of oil from the crippled well.

The lower-than-expected pressure readings from the well integrity test have only exacerbated the concerns, because the scientific teams are uncertain what's causing them.

However, the longer the integrity test goes on successfully, the more oil they keep out of the Gulf while they complete the relief well, Allen acknowledged.

"We're looking at the conditions every 24 hours," Allen said, "understanding that each day we have the well shut in, that's less pollution and oil that's going into the environment."

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