Oil seeping from Gulf floor near well, but Coast Guard allows cap to stay in place another 24 hours


Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen on Sunday evening agreed to allow a cap to continue to block the flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, despite the discovery of oil or natural gas seeping from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico at a location away from the well.

But Allen ordered BP to report any discoveries of future seeps within four hours and to follow more stringent testing rules as the testing continued. 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,” Allen said in a letter to Bob Dudley, chief managing director of BP. “As a continued condition of the test, you are required to provide as a top priority access and coordination for the monitoring systems, which include seismic and sonar surface ships and subsea ROV and acoustic systems..

“When seeps are detected, you are directed to marshal resources, quickly investigate, and report findings to the government in no more than four hours,” Allen wrote. “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 also ordered BP to update him within 24 hours on how the cap testing will proceed.

“Now that source control has evolved into a period beyond the expected 48 hour interval of the Well Integrity Test, I am requiring that you provide me a written update within 24 hours of your intentions going forward,” Allen wrote. “I remain concerned that all potential options to eliminate the discharge of oil be pursued with utmost speed until I can be assured that no additional oil will spill from the Macondo Well.”

Federal and BP officials released no additional information Sunday night on the size of the seep, when or how it was found or its actual location in relation to the wellhead.

If the test were to end, BP would convert the closed cap to allow a riser to be connected to the well and the surface to collect oil in ships at the surface. That process could result in a return to uncontrolled releases of oil for as much as three days, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said during an early morning news conference Sunday.

The day began with dueling statements by Allen and Suttles disagreeing over how long the cap shutting in oil atop the broken Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico will remain in place.

Allen said he would make a decision by 3 p.m. Sunday on whether to extend testing of the effectiveness of the cap structure for another 24 hours, in accordance with the previous agreement between BP and the federal government.

Earlier, Suttles told reporters during a teleconference that BP would keep the cap on the well indefinitely until testing indicates oil is leaking from the well or making its way from the well into the water at some other location on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

“And I think, as we have said all along, if we did see a problem, we may have to reinitiate flow, but we are just taking this day by day, and (it) could be that we take it day by day all the way to the point we get the well killed,” Suttles said.

“At some point, we may call the test complete, but we’re not there yet,” he said.

Allen’s statement was aimed at making it clear that Suttles was not announcing a new strategy.

“Per my conversation with BP executive Bob Dudley as recently as 11 a.m. today, nothing has changed about the joint agreement announced yesterday between BP and the U.S. government,” Allen said.

While Allen stressed the government’s concern about the testing, Suttles stressed the positive signs the company was seeing.

“The well remains shut in,” Suttles said in describing the company’s plans. “Pressure slowly continues to build at 1 to 2 (pounds per square inch) per hour.”

That pressure was at 6,778 psi Sunday morning, still short of a 6,800 psi goal Suttles said was set by BP and federal officials as one sign of the cap’s success.

When the cap process began, officials had said the pressure goal was as high as 8,000 psi, but BP officials then surmised that the release of 184 million gallons of oil since the spill might have emptied the deep oil reservoir enough to reduce the pressure of oil and gas flowing to the surface.

Higher pressure is a good sign, as a drop in pressure might indicate that oil and gas might be escaping into a formation below the Gulf floor, and might escape into the water through a fissure, such as indicated by the AP report.

But BP and federal officials could continue to consider the cap operation as in test mode through the mid-August goal of completing a relief well that would permanently shut in the well, Suttles said.

“What the government has required us to do is complete a very specific monitoring program,” he said. “But the fact that the pressure continues to go up is a good sign.”

But at least one vocal critic warned that the cap may limit the ability of federal officials to determine how much it should fine BP for the release of oil in the Gulf, and of others to determine damages to businesses and natural resources.

On Sunday, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., warned that the alternate system to allow oil to flow through the cap structure and risers to the surface for collection could be the last chance to get accurate figures of how much oil has been released since the well blowout on April 20.

“If it is necessary to again allow the well to flow, either because a decision to keep it shut in indefinitely is unsound, or in order to conduct the relief well ‘bottom kill,’ then there would be no reason at that point for not taking the opportunity to conduct a 100 percent hydrocarbon collection test,” Markey wrote in a letter to Allen.

“It is imperative that we understand your current plans and be able to assess the ramifications of different options at this point,” Markey wrote. “I am also concerned, as I know you are, that continuing to keep the well fully shut in could pose risks of additional problems with well integrity, an issue that I have raised with both you and BP in separate letters over the past few weeks.”

In his statement Sunday morning, Allen stressed the importance of the results of tests of the integrity of the cap.

“Work must continue to better understand the lower-than-expected pressure readings,” he said. “This work centers on two plausible scenarios, depletion of oil from the reservoir and potential leakage caused by damage to the well bore or casing.

“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,” he said. “Ultimately, we must ensure no irreversible damage is done which could cause uncontrolled leakage from numerous points on the sea floor.”

Those tests include seismic mapping of the subsurface by ships steaming around the well, which is actually delaying the completion of alternate plans to locate vessels above the well to capture additional oil if the cap doesn’t work, Suttles said. The vessels must be moved out of the way each time a test is done.

Suttles said the delays were not a significant problem, and that plans to increase storage capacity at the surface by the end of July are still on schedule, in the event the cap doesn’t work and collection of oil must resume.

If the use of the cap to shut off the flow of oil from the well must be abandoned, it will take about three days to switch to the collection plan, during which oil would again flow uncontrolled into the Gulf, he said.

The seismic tests are looking for indications that oil and gas are flowing away from the well into a subsurface formation.

Sonar tests also are being conducted to look for oil and natural gas escaping the well or the subsurface, and remote operating vehicles are looking for visible signs of escaping oil. Officials are monitoring the temperature of the oil and gas in the blowout preventer, which remains at 40 degrees. Warmer temperatures also would be an indication that oil is moving away from the well, Suttles said.

“So far, we have not seen any indications of that, which is why we’re encouraged at this point.”

Suttles said drilling of the first relief well remains on track for entering the well about three miles below the surface by the end of July. It could take another two weeks after that to staunch the flow of oil permanently with heavy drilling mud and cement.

The first relief well has reached 17,864 feet, about 100 feet above and 4 feet to the side of the target area where it will break into the existing well, he said. A second relief well has reached 15,874 feet, but has been put on hold to await completion of the first well.

Suttles said workers also are sampling bubbles visible around the wellhead to assure they are not an indication of leaking of oil or natural gas or gas hydrates from the well.

He said initial tests that he did not describe indicate the bubbles are not hydrates — a solid form of methane or natural gas formed by the combination of cold temperatures and pressures a mile below the water’s surface. But Suttles also said workers had been unsuccessful in actually capturing the bubbles, and thus additional tests must be completed to confirm that conclusion.

“If you can imagine, it is not an easy operation to collect those bubbles so that they can be tested to see what their make-up is,” he said.

Suttles said BP officials also have been encouraged by the lack of reports of impacts on new areas of the Gulf shoreline in recent days.

He said there are about 50 skimmers operating near the wellhead, and they are capturing less oil.

“Yesterday, we recovered about 7,600 barrels of oily liquid,” he said. “”This is about half of what we recovered the day before.”

There also was only one burn of collected oil near the well, compared with 19 the day before.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” show Sunday morning, said the cap closure seemed a hopeful improvement.

“You know, we have to stay focused on making sure that the well is capped,” Landrieu told correspondent Candy Crowley. “We then really have to aggressively capture the oil, clean the coast, make sure that all of the families, you know, are compensated, and then begin to restore the wetlands down here.”

“So it is welcome news. It’s the first piece that we’ve had in a long time,” Landrieu said. “As everybody said, we’re cautiously optimistic about it. But it’s just a beginning. We have a very, very long way to go.”

Landrieu said he’s still in support of an effort to get BP to provide $75 million to pay for a tourism marketing campaign for the New Orleans region, especially since organizations making decisions today on where to locate future conventions could be influenced by the bad publicity about the spill.

“We know because we are a fairly large tourism economy that if you spend money on the front end, you actually mitigate the damages on the back end,” Landrieu said. “Now BP really understands this, because if you pick up any paper in America today, there are full-page ads with BP talking about the work that they are doing down here. So I know they know that marketing works.”

Landrieu also expressed support for a quick end to a moratorium by the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement on drilling new wells in deepwater areas of the Outer Continental Shelf.

“You know, if you look at this from a distance and you look at it as a matter of philosophy, maybe (the moratorium) is arguable,” he said. But the same people hurt by fishing bans caused by the spill also have relatives hurt by the loss of jobs caused by the moratorium.

“Those of us down here obviously are as interested or are more interested in safety than anybody else in the country,” he said. “But we believe that there is a way to drill safely. And you can handle the moratorium with a scalpel and not a hammer.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” criticized President Barack Obama for not returning to the oil-stricken Gulf South since early June.

“I’m afraid he’s decided to deal with this issue, at least politically, by not coming back here and trying to move it off the front page rather than dealing with the situation forcefully,” Vitter said.”He was coming here on a pretty regular basis. … He hasn’t done that in Louisiana since June 4. That’s personally disappointing to me.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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