BP, U.S. government diverge on next step at oil spill site
The blown-out well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico remained shut Sunday for the fourth day — seemingly, a rare stroke of good news after a long stretch of bad luck, equipment failures and gushing oil.
But BP and the federal government signaled they had different ideas about what to do next, with BP talking about keeping its well shut permanently and the federal government urging caution.
Early in the day, BP officials said that a mechanical “cap,” installed Thursday to seal the well, appeared to be holding up
hief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said BP hoped to keep the well “shut in,” relying on the cap until the oil company could close the ruptured well permanently with a relief well this month or next.
But Sunday evening, the federal government’s national incident commander released a letter he had written to BP, noting a “detected seep a distance from the well and undetermined anomalies at the well head.”
A seep would be a serious problem if it indicated oil or gas escaping from the capped well and burbling up through the seafloor.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen gave permission to keep the well shut but said BP must keep him abreast of any potential problems at the well and prepare to release oil if a serious leak appears.
“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.
Also Sunday evening, a spokesman for BP, John Curry, declined to say whether Suttles’ assessment from earlier in the day was still accurate.
“We’re not seeing any problems at this point, any issues Research assistant Becky Winsted, left, prepares to treat a loggerhead turtle recovered from the Gulf while volunteer Rebecca Dunham and Tim Hoffland, director of animal care, assist Sunday at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss. with the shut-in,” Suttles had said about 8:30 a.m.
“We’re not going to provide a running commentary” of developments at the wellhead, Curry said. “If there’s a change, a release will be issued.”
In the confusion, this much was clear: Even if the now-infamous Macondo well doesn’t leak another drop, the spill is likely to remain an environmental and economic problem for some time. Out in the gulf, a recent reconnaissance flight showed that the spill’s epicenter — the waters around the leaking well — is no longer clogged with thick oil, a Coast Guard spokesman said. What remained was only a “silver sheen,” he said, meaning a thin film of decayed oil.
But at least 2.3 million barrels (105 million gallons) have spilled already, according to an estimate from the International Energy Agency.
And, further offshore, scientists are struggling to understand how submerged “clouds” of oil are affecting the Gulf’s ecosystems. These might poison some small animals outright, and they might trigger low-oxygen “dead zones” that could smother long-living corals in the deep.
Scientists said it could take several growing seasons for them to ascertain how the spill has affected vital marine animals such as shrimp, crab and oysters. And it could take far longer to understand what has happened to creatures such as sperm whales, which live in little-studied canyons of the deep Gulf.
The amount of the submerged oil and the spread of the crude make any previous oil spills unreliable guides.
“There are no useful analogies for this one,” said Steven Murawski, an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division.
The real end to the drama at the wellhead could be a few weeks away. Suttles said the closest relief well was more than 17,000 feet below the sea floor: 100 feet vertically and 4 feet laterally from the point it needs to reach.
That relief well could hit its target by the end of this month, Suttles said, although the process of “killing” the ruptured well might last until mid-August.