Beginning of the end? Tests of BP well cap continue but no leaks yet
Update: ‘Seep’ detected on seabed; administration orders report
The US government has ordered BP to report on a “detected seep” and other “anomalies” near the Gulf of Mexico oil well as experts monitor the seabed for cracks after the months-long gusher was capped.
“Given the current observations from the test, including the detected seep a distance from the well and undetermined anomalies at the well head, monitoring of the seabed is of paramount importance during the test period,” Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said in a letter to BP chief managing director Bob Dudley.
“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.”
Original report continues below…
BP raised hopes Sunday that no more toxic crude will leak into the Gulf of Mexico, saying it intends to keep its runaway oil well sealed until a permanent “kill” operation later this month.
The US government is granting extensions to exhaustive well tests on a 24-hour basis, but BP said the valves on the containment cap that is staunching the flow will remain shut as long as no leaks are discovered.
This could mark the beginning of the end of what estimates suggest is the biggest oil spill ever, although the true damage from one of America’s worst environmental disasters might not be known for decades.
“Clearly we don’t want to reinitiate flow into the Gulf if we don’t have to,” said BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles.
“We’re hopeful that if the encouraging signs continue we’ll be able to continue the integrity test all the way to the point where we get the well killed.”
The start of the two-week operation to plug the well permanently by pumping in heavy drilling fluids and then cement is now less than two weeks away as engineers have only 100 feet (30 meters) left vertically to drill.
Gulf residents, who have seen the relentless flow of crude tarnish their shorelines and cripple the local economy, reacted cautiously to the latest news, wary of being given false hope after weeks of botched BP operations.
“I don?t know if it?s going help. It?s still a short-term fix,” New Orleans resident and medical researcher Ashok Pullikuth told AFP. “The permanent fix is the relief wells. This cap has saved a month?s worth of spill damage.”
Admiral Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard chief leading the US government response to the disaster, sounded a note of caution and suggested that keeping the cap on was not a done deal.
“The ongoing well integrity test will continue until 4 pm (2000 GMT) today, with the potential for additional extensions in 24-hour increments,” Allen said in a written statement.
“Ultimately, we must insure no irreversible damage is done which could cause uncontrolled leakage from numerous points on the sea floor.”
Transducers on BP’s latest containment cap have given steadily increasing high-pressure readings since tests began on Thursday, indicating no leak in the well bore, which stretches down 2.5 miles (four kilometers) below the seabed.
Seismic and sonar surveys and video footage filmed by robotic submarines in the murky depths of the Gulf have also found no evidence of any oil or gas leaking through the rock formations on the sea floor.
Oil has washed up on the coasts of all five Gulf states — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank on April 22, two days after an explosion that killed 11 workers.
Poisonous crude has killed birds, closed fishing grounds, decimated the tourism industry and done untold environmental damage, including to marshland nature reserves that might never fully recover.
New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu told CNN it was “obviously wonderful news” if the cap stays on but warned: “We have a very, very long way to go.
“We have to stay focused on making sure that the well is capped. We then really have to aggressively capture the oil, clean the coast, make sure that all of the families are compensated, and then begin to restore the wetlands.”
Suttles said BP would stick it out for the “long-term,” saying: “There’s a lot to do even once we get this well completely sealed off. We have to complete the clean-up and mitigate the impacts to both the environment and the people of the region.”
The White House has reacted to the latest test results in the Gulf with guarded optimism, conscious that the political fallout from the disaster has been unhelpful ahead of crucial mid-term elections in November.
With the clean-up still in its infancy and the claims process not yet in full swing, the road to recovery appears to be a long one for BP, whose share price halved as fears of liability soared.
Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper reported it could scale back its US operations and sell refineries and petrol stations as it battles to rebuild its reputation.
BP has set up a 20-billion-dollar fund to pay compensation to those directly affected by the spill, on top of the 3.5 billion dollars it had forked out in disaster-related costs by last weekend.