NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Oil and gas are leaking from the cap on BP’s ruptured oil well but the cork will stay in place for now, the federal government’s point man on the spill said Monday.
The leaks aren’t “consequential,” retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said, relieving concerns that they are a sign the cap is creating too much pressure underground. That could mean the cap that’s stopped oil since Thursday would have to be opened.
Allen said BP could continue testing the cap, meaning keeping it shut, for at least another 24 hours. He said BP must keep rigorously monitoring for any signs that this test could worsen the overall situation.
If there was a quick rise in pressure, the well would be vented immediately to keep from creating leaks deep underground, Allen said.
Allen repeated Monday that the next step wasn’t clear.
“I’m not prepared to say the well is shut in until the relief well is done. There are too many uncertainties,” he said.
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.
With the newly installed cap keeping oil out of the Gulf, this weekend offered a chance for the oil company and government to gloat over their shared success – the first real victory in fighting the spill.
Instead, the two sides have spent the past two days disagreeing over what to do with the undersea machinery holding back the gusher.
“We had some concerns … about commitments that BP had made that we did not feel that they were adequately living up to in terms of that monitoring,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “That was dealt with last night on a call that lasted late into the evening.”
The apparent disagreement began to sprout Saturday when Allen said the cap would eventually be hooked up to a mile-long pipe to pump the crude to ships on the surface. But early the next day, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said the cap should stay clamped shut to keep in the oil until a permanent fix.
The company very much wants to avoid a repeat of millions of gallons of oil spewing from the blown well for weeks, watched live across the country on underwater video.
If the valves are kept closed, as BP wants, it’s possible that no more oil will leak into the Gulf of Mexico. Work on a permanent plug is moving steadily, with crews drilling into the side of the ruptured well from deep underground. By next week, they could start blasting in mud and cement to block off the well for good.
But the government is worried that the cap on the well is causing oil and gas to leak out elsewhere, which could make the sea floor unstable and cause the well to collapse. That’s why federal officials want to pump the crude to ships on the surface. That would require opening the well for a few days to relieve pressure before the pipes could be hooked up, letting millions more gallons of oil spill out in the interim.