The biggest success in three months of trying to plug the runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico — a cap that has shut the oil down for four days — has also underscored the lingering distrust between BP executives and government officials overseeing the response.
A case in point: It took a late-night teleconference Sunday for BP to persuade the government’s point man on the response that the company is doing all it can to ensure that leaks of oil and gas from the seafloor around the well will not make the situation worse.
The conference call was held after retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, in charge of the response, demanded instructions for opening the cap after seismic surveys and acoustic tests detected the seeps.
On Monday, Allen stepped back and gave BP another 24 hours to keep the cap on while monitoring any leakages of oil and methane gas in the seabed surrounding the broken well head.
Allen said the seeps, as well as small leaks detected in the experimental cap holding down the gusher and in the failed blowout preventer attached to the well head, were not a major concern.
“It’s the collective opinion of the folks that are talking about this that the small seepage we’re finding right now does not present a threat to the well bore,” he said.
But he acknowledged it took a recommitment from BP, which owns the well and is funding the response, that the company would conduct vigorous monitoring for seeps and react swiftly and with all necessary resources.
“One of the things that gives us confidence to move forward every 24 hours is: If we find an anomaly, we’re moving ahead very quickly,” he said.
Allen’s comments were themselves something of an anomaly.
Since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people, the most significant progress has come from the experimental cap placed over the well on July 15 that has halted the flow of oil.
Yet rather than trumpet the achievement, BP and government officials spent much of Sunday issuing conflicting statements over the next steps and fretting over bubbles of oil and gas emanating from the seabed surrounding the well.
Allen addressed the confusion on Monday, saying the air was cleared following the late night teleconference Sunday between BP representatives and the federal science team assembled to study the spill.
The issue appeared to be trust.
“The back and forth,” he said, “was more about getting the metrics, the reaction time and the procedures and the doctrine down.”
The federal science team expected a swift and appropriate response from BP to anomalies detected in the seabed, well head and other critical areas, he said.
Allen suggested that BP’s response had not been all that swift or appropriate.
Among the issues the two sides had to smooth over during the Sunday night teleconference: the availability of Remotely Operated Vehicles — submersible robots that roam the seafloor with video cameras and tools — to respond to seeps; the types of sensors BP uses to gather data from the well site; and “to make sure on a routine basis they were doing seismic and acoustic testing, and that resources were available to respond quickly.”
Kent Wells, BP’s senior vice president, said at a briefing Monday after Allen spoke that the company’s meetings with federal scientists have been spirited and constructive.
Daren Beaudo, a BP spokesman, forwarded Wells’ comments to The Miami Herald in a written statement that read, in part: “If you bring a lot of smart scientists and engineers together, you’re going to have debate and push-back. But at the end of the day the decisions come as part of a unified command: We move forward with one decision, under one leadership.”
Since shutting the well with the experimental cap last week, BP has monitored the pressure and reported a slow increase — an encouraging sign — to a reading of about 6,800 pounds per square inch as of Monday.
Ideally, engineers are looking for pressure readings between 8,000 and 9,000 pounds per square inch, which would indicate minimal or no damage to the well bore. Lower readings could suggest a leak.
Government officials are worried that the cap on the well may force oil and gas to leak uncontrollably into the bedrock and mud, making the seafloor unstable and risking a collapse of the well.
Allen gave no details on the size or exact location of the seeps, except to say that one was detected within two miles of the site, another within 80 yards and several others within a few hundred yards.
Ian MacDonald, a biological oceanographer at Florida State University who has been researching natural oil seeps in the Gulf for more than 20 years, said the “blurry” videos he has seen broadcast and posted online and the information supplied by Allen and BP remain “somewhat inconclusive.”
“From what I’ve seen, this isn’t the smoking gun,” said MacDonald, who was among the first scientists to argue that BP and the federal government were grossly low-balling initial flow estimates.
MacDonald said the reports of leaking gas and bubbles on the seafloor could be among the many naturally occurring seeps dotting the Gulf, though the closest one previously documented was about six miles from the well.
Some videos of what appear to be bubbles from the seafloor also could be nothing more than disturbances caused by the props of the submersible robots doing the monitoring.
But the leaks also could be indicators of problems with the well, potentially serious ones.
MacDonald said the concerns so far raised by the government don’t outweigh the risks of reopening a well that has already done massive ecological and economic damage.
“I don’t want to see that well start flowing,” said. “I don’t want to see them turn it on unless it is really, really important that they do so.”
Allen previously said that once pressure tests were complete, the cap would be hooked up through nearly a mile of pipes stretching to four ships on the surface that can collect as much as 80,000 barrels of oil a day — well above the government’s estimate of what the well has been releasing, 35,000 to 60,000 barrels daily.
But the siphoning system could require as much as three days to set up, relieving pressure from the well and allowing oil to flow freely into the Gulf.
BP was expected to deliver a letter to government officials late Monday detailing a timeline and necessary steps for restarting containment efforts, Allen said.
The most promising solution is one of two relief wells that BP began drilling May 2. That well reached a depth of 17,864 feet as of Sunday and is expected to kill the broken well during the first half of August.
“It’d be very, very premature,” Allen said, “to say the well is shut in until the relief well is done.”
If no more oil flows from the broken well, Allen said, the government may still assess the total amount of oil spilled — and perhaps how much of a fine to levy against BP.
BP’s cost for the response to date is about $3.95 billion, including nearly $207 million in claims paid, company officials reported Monday. BP also has agreed to create a $20 billion fund to satisfy claims.