U.S. warns BP amid fears over seep near well

Msnbc | AP | Reuters | 19/07/2010 | 18:12 pm IST

Submersible checking the cap The federal government Monday allowed BP to keep the cap shut tight on its busted Gulf of Mexico oil well for another day after the company promised to watch closely for any signs of new leaks breaking through the sea floor, settling for the moment a rift between BP and the government. The federal point man for the spill, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said early Monday that government scientists had gotten the answers they wanted about how BP is monitoring the seabed around the mile-deep well site, which has stopped gushing oil into the water since the experimental cap was closed Thursday. Late Sunday, Allen said a seep had been detected a distance from the busted oil well and demanded in a sharply worded letter that BP step up monitoring of the ocean floor. Allen didn’t say what was coming from the seep. The concern all along — since pressure readings on the cap weren’t as high as expected — was a leak elsewhere in the well bore, meaning the cap may have to be reopened to prevent the environmental disaster from becoming even worse and harder to fix. An underground leak could let oil and gas escape uncontrolled through bedrock and mud.

But Allen warned the firm Monday that the "test will only continue if they [BP] continue to meet their obligations to rigorously monitor for any signs that this test could worsen the overall situation." Allen said there had been an overnight conference call between the federal science team and BP. "During the conversation, the federal science team got the answers they were seeking and the commitment from BP to meet their monitoring and notification obligations," Allen said. However, BP spokesman Robert Wine told Reuters Monday that the seep may not be related to its blown out Macondo well. Wine said that BP engineers were the source of information behind Allen’s comments that a seep was detected "a distance from the well." "When seeps are detected, you are directed to marshal resources, quickly investigate, and report findings to the government in no more than four hours. I direct you to provide me a written procedure for opening the choke valve as quickly as possible without damaging the well should hydrocarbon seepage near the well head be confirmed," Allen added in a letter to BP Managing Director Bob Dudley.   

The government and BP had spent the past two days disagreeing over what to do next with the undersea machinery holding back the gusher. BP very much wants to avoid continuing the live underwater video that showed millions of gallons of oil spewing from the blown well for weeks. According to government estimates, somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf. The government’s plan, however, is to eventually pipe oil to the surface, which would ease pressure on the fragile well but require up to three more days of oil spilling into the Gulf.

Harsh criticism

Allen said the cap bottling up the oil would eventually be hooked up to a mile-long pipe to pump the crude to ships on the surface. But BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles on Sunday said the cap should shut the oil in until relief wells are finished. After nearly three months of harsh criticism as it tried repeatedly to stop the leak, BP capped the nearly mile-deep well Thursday and wants to keep it that way. Allen said testing on the cap would continue. Engineers are looking to determine whether low pressure readings mean that more oil than expected poured into the Gulf of Mexico since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people and touching off one of America’s worst environment crises. "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. Both Allen and BP have said they don’t know how long the trial run will continue. It was set to end Sunday afternoon, but the deadline came and went with no word on what’s next.

To plug the busted well, BP is drilling two relief wells, one of them as a backup. The company said work on the first one was far enough along that officials expect to reach the broken well’s casing, or pipes, deep underground by late this month. The subsequent job of jamming the well with mud and cement could take up to a few weeks. However, BP announced Monday that construction of one of the wells had been temporarily halted "so as not to interfere with the ranging runs being performed in the first relief well." It will take months, or possibly years for the Gulf to recover, though cleanup efforts continued and improvements in the water could be seen in the days since the oil stopped flowing. Meanwhile, U.S. authorities probing the spill are looking into why workers missed signs of an impending explosion and have drawn up a list of more than 20 anomalies in the crew’s response to them, the Wall Street Journal reported. Investigators are also looking at decisions made by employees of Transocean Ltd, the rig’s owner, and disagreements between workers from the two companies, the paper reported, citing an internal document put together by investigators. BP had leased the Transocean-owned rig that exploded on April 20. The list was prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which oversees deepwater drilling, the paper reported.


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