NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ The US government authorized BP on Monday to keep the busted Gulf of Mexico oil well shut in for another 24 hours despite gas seepage that could indicate the wellbore is damaged.
BP wants to keep the valves on its containment cap closed continuously until an operation to permanently seal the well can be performed in less than two weeks time, meaning no more toxic crude would stream into the Gulf.
But those hopes were dealt a blow on Sunday when the government raised concerns about “the detection of a seep near the well and the possible observation of methane over the well.”
BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles had dismissed the gas as “a few bubbles” as he touted “encouraging signs” that would allow the new cap to remain on indefinitely.
“In two different locations we’ve seen a few bubbles. This is not uncommon but clearly it’s important that we check everything very closely so we’re monitoring that,” Suttles said.
BP spokesman Mark Proegler refused to be drawn on the mixed messages from the US government and the British energy giant, telling AFP, “I think we all want to make sure that it is safe to keep this closed and if we can we will.”
Admiral Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard chief leading efforts to end the worst oil disaster in US history, decided early Monday to let the cap stay on for another day after discussions with BP and government experts.
“I authorized BP to continue the integrity test for another 24 hours and I restated our firm position that this test will only continue if they continue to meet their obligations to rigorously monitor for any signs that this test could worsen the overall situation,” Admiral Allen said in a statement.
Neither the Coast Guard nor BP could confirm whether that meant the cap would stay shut until the early hours of Tuesday or later into the afternoon, the time when the test first began on Thursday.
The announcement last week that BP has stopped the oil flow completely for the first time since April raised hopes of devastated coastal communities that their three-month nightmare may soon be over.
The start of a two-week operation to plug the well permanently by pumping in heavy drilling fluids and then cement is now less than a fortnight away as engineers have only 100 feet (30 meters) left vertically to drill.
Gulf residents, who have seen the crude tarnish their shorelines and cripple the local economy since a rig leased by BP exploded and killed 11 workers in April, reacted cautiously to news the cap was holding back all the oil.
“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.”
Measuring devices on BP’s latest cap have given steadily increasing high-pressure readings since tests began Thursday, which would indicate there are no major leaks in the wellbore.
Seismic and sonar surveys and video footage filmed by robotic submarines in the murky depths of the Gulf have been monitoring whether any oil or gas was leaking through the rock formations on the sea floor.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Feinberg, who manages BP’s 20-billion-dollar compensation fund, said Monday that capping the well would allow compensation claims to move forward more quickly as the extent of the damage becomes clearer.
“Until the oil has stopped it is very hard to corral the claims, you don’t know how many claims, whether the oil will reach a certain area,” he told a forum in Washington.
He urged fishermen, oyster collectors and owners of hotels and other businesses to now come forward with claims, including emergency payments to cover the first six months of damages.
Residents face a tough choice: whether to accept compensation from the fund or pursue legal action against BP or the other companies involved.
“I’ll be much more generous than any court will be, and at the same time you won’t need to pay lawyers’ costs,” urged Feinberg.
Earlier this month BP said it had already paid out more than 200 million dollars in compensation to Gulf of Mexico residents affected by a months-long oil spill.
The firm said it had offered some 32,000 claimants one or more payments over the last 10 weeks as it tries to assuage anger and frustration over the environmental and economic disaster.