Amid leakage concerns, feds and BP clash over well cap plans
Published Sunday, July 18, 2010 10:46PM EDT
Washington's point man in the Gulf spill crisis is asking that BP submit a plan to reopen the recently-capped oil well, as concern increases that leakage is occurring beneath the ocean floor.
"I direct you to provide me with a written procedure for opening the choke valve as quickly as possible ... should hydrocarbon seepage near the well head be confirmed," retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen wrote in a letter Sunday.
BP had said its new sealing cap has blocked oil from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, with early tests showing no damage to the undersea well. But those tests could be contradicted.
It now appears that the U.S. government wants to reopen the fragile well cap and begin pumping the oil to the surface. However, doing so would mean reopening the well for three days as the system is put in place.
Among concerns over seepage, bubbles near the busted oil well have been found. Officials fear that the bubbles may be the result of a methane leak.
Further complicating matters, pressure readings have been lower than expected on the well cap, which suggests that there may be another leak somewhere along the wellbore. Any such leak would be even harder to fix.
"While we are pleased that no oil is currently being released into the Gulf of Mexico and want to take all appropriate action to keep it that way, it is important that all decisions are driven by the science," Allen said.
Despite the government's plans, however, BP had said that the cap should remain sealed.
The company's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, said earlier Sunday that the cap could remain in place until the well is permanently plugged by cement and mud.
"No one associated with this whole activity ... wants to see any more oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico," he said. "Right now we don't have a target to return the well to flow."
He added that there is no real proof that the bubbles around the wellhead are the result of a methane leak.
"We have done some simple tests to see if these bubbles come from hydrocarbons, at this point we don't believe they are," said Suttles.
When asked about the apparent contradiction between the government's stance and BP's approach, a company representative would only say: "we continue to work very closely with all government scientists on this."
One possible explanation is that BP may be trying to sidestep criticism if the well has to be reopened. If the company can paint a possible reopening as a government decision, it may help the company avoid further public embarrassment.
BP first tightened the cap on Thursday and immediately began testing whether it could withstand pressure from the gushing oil. So far, the seal has performed better than expected.
It marks the first time since April 20 that oil has stopped flowing into the Gulf.
In worst-case estimates by the U.S. government, the well pumped up to 9.5 million litres of oil into the sea every day, causing untold harm to marine life and the Gulf coastline.
The leak began after an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. The blast killed 11 people and injured dozens more.