Feds: leak­ing from cap isn’t cause for alarm yet

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Colleen Long and Matthew Daly

NEW OR­LEANS — BP’s bro­ken well was leak­ing oil and gas again Mon­day for the first time since the com­pany capped it last week, but the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s spill chief said it was no cause for alarm. The stop­per was left in place for now.

Since the cap was used to bot­tle up the oil last week, en­gi­neers have been watch­ing un­der­wa­ter cam­eras and mon­i­tor­ing pres­sure and seis­mic read­ings to see whether the well would hold or spring a new leak, per­haps one that could rup­ture the seafloor and make the dis­as­ter worse.

Small amounts of oil and gas started com­ing from the cap late Sun­day, but “we do not be­lieve it is con­se­quen­tial at this time,” re­tired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.

Also, seep­age from the seafloor was de­tected over the week­end less Spill chief says BP can keep cap closed at least an­other 24 hours, with mon­i­tor­ing. than two miles away, but Allen said it prob­a­bly has noth­ing to do with the well. Oil and gas are known to ooze nat­u­rally from fis­sures in the bot­tom of the Gulf of Mex­ico.

At an af­ter­noon brief­ing in Washington, Allen said BP could keep the cap closed at least an­other 24 hours, as long as the com­pany re­mains alert for leaks.

BP and the govern­ment had been at odds over the com­pany’s de­sire to leave the cap in place and em­ploy it like a gi­ant cork in a bot­tle un­til a re­lief well be­ing drilled deep un­der-

Con­tin­ued from A ground can be used to plug the well per­ma­nently.

Allen ini­tially said his pref­er­ence was to pipe oil through the cap to tankers on the sur­face to re­duce the slight chance that the buildup of pres­sure in­side the well would cause a new blowout. That plan would re­quire re­leas­ing mil­lions more gal­lons of oil into the ocean for a few days dur­ing the tran­si­tion, a spec­ta­cle BP ap­par­ently wants to avoid.

On Mon­day, Allen budged a bit, say­ing un­less larger prob­lems de­velop, he’s not in­clined to open the cap.

Also on the ta­ble: Pump­ing drilling mud through the top of the cap and into the well bore to stop up the oil flow. The idea is sim­i­lar to the failed top kill plan that couldn’t over­come the pres­sure of the geyser push­ing up.

BP said it could work now be­cause there’s less oil to fight against, but it wasn’t clear how such a method would af­fect the cap’s sta­bil­ity. Allen said the re­lief well was still the plan for a per­ma­nent fix.

BP and the govern­ment are still try­ing to un­der­stand why pres­sure read­ings from the well are lower than ex­pected. Allen of­fered two pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions: The reser­voir that the oil is gush­ing from is dwin­dling, or there is an undis­cov­ered leak some­where down in the well.

“I’m not pre­pared to say the well is shut in un­til the re­lief well is done,” which is still sev­eral weeks away, Allen said. “There are too many un­cer­tain­ties.”

BP and the Coast Guard learned that les­son the hard way; they ini­tially said no oil was com­ing from the site of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon rig af­ter it ex­ploded April 20, killing 11 work­ers. Even af­ter it be­came clear there was a leak, the com­pany and its fed­eral over­seers dras­ti­cally un­der­es­ti­mated its size for weeks.

Robert Car­ney, a Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity ex­pert on bi­o­log­i­cal oceanog­ra­phy, said the seep­age is far enough away from the well that it could be oc­cur­ring nat­u­rally.

“You have lit­tle bub­bles ris­ing up from the bot­tom fre­quently; that’s the meth­ane gas,” he said. “Oil would be a lit­tle black dot, more dif­fi­cult to see. But both es­cape into the wa­ter reg­u­larly.”

One other pos­si­bil­ity: There are about 27,000 aban­doned wells in the Gulf. One of them is within two miles of BP’s blowout, and there is a sec­ond well in the area that is not in pro­duc­tion.

Al­though of­fi­cials gave no in­di­ca­tion that the seep­age was from an­other well, they’re not checked for leaks, an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion showed this month.

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. Killing the well deep un­der­ground works more re­li­ably than bot­tling it up with a cap.

Some­where be­tween 92 mil­lion and 184 mil­lion gal­lons have gushed into the Gulf over the past three months in one of Amer­ica’s worst en­vi­ron­ment crises.

BP said the cost of deal­ing with the spill has now reached nearly $4 bil­lion. The com­pany said it has made pay­ments to­tal­ing $207 mil­lion to set­tle claims for dam­ages. Nearly 116,000 claims have been sub­mit­ted, and more than 67,500 pay­ments have been made.

Mean­while, a fed­eral judge who over­turned the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ini­tial six­month mora­to­rium on deep­wa­ter oil drilling has re­fused to dis­qual­ify him­self from the case. Sev­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal groups had asked U.S. District Judge Martin Feld­man to with­draw from the case be­cause of his in­vest­ments in sev­eral oil and gas com­pa­nies. Feld­man re­fused in an or­der is­sued Fri­day and posted Mon­day.

Thad Allen

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