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 have 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 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 would 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.
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.
In his briefing Monday, Allen hastened to add that 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.
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 BP has 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,” Wells said.
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 that sank 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.
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 said.
“We’re looking at the conditions every 24 hours, understanding that each day we have the well shut in, that’s less pollution and oil that’s going into the environment,” he said.