WASHINGTON — BP will proceed with its delicate testing of its containment cap that could continue to keep oil from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from its failed well, but the team monitoring the testing isn't 100 percent confident the cap will be successful.
The team's government and industry experts remain uncertain about whether there's damage to the wellbore somewhere in the 18,000 feet between the ocean floor and the oil and gas reservoir that could mean oil and gas is escaping.
The team fears the new seal could force oil and gas to leak out of weak spots in the well, deep below the floor of the ocean, said Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander. So far, the pressure readings haven't caused the team to stop the testing, and nothing in the acoustic and seismic tests indicates a breach.
However, Allen said the team isn't completely sure and hasn't determined whether to keep the seal closed or resume collecting oil and gas from the well at the end of the 48-hour testing period.
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"It's a very, very good thing that the well is shut in right now, there's no oil being released in the environment," Allen said. "But we're very, very mindful to do no harm, to do nothing that is irreversible in terms of damage to the wellbore."
Late Friday afternoon, the pressure during the test reached only 6,700 pounds per square inch, and it continued to build, at about 2 psi an hour. Engineers wanted to see a reading of at least 6,000 psi but would like to see a reading closer to 8,000 psi.
The team's greatest fear is that the lower pressure readings mean oil and gas is escaping and could cause problems with the relief wells that are only a few feet from the existing well — and are the only sure method of stopping the gush of oil permanently.
The team is also mindful that if they make a mistake, they could irrevocably harm a system that wasn't even designed to cap the well. Instead, it was developed to capture as much oil and gas as possible from the runaway well until a relief well is finished and they can shut down the blown-out well for good.
So far, extensive testing doesn't indicate any sort of breach in the well, said Kent Wells, a senior vice president at BP.
"At this point there's no evidence the well does not have integrity," he said Friday evening during a technical briefing. "And that's a good thing."
Yet there's so much uncertainty about the pressure readings that BP will be allowed to move forward with testing only after meeting certain conditions, Allen said.
They include enhanced monitoring on the sea floor and acoustic monitoring at the wellhead. The team also is testing the temperature at the wellhead. The oil hasn't heated up again since it stopped flowing — a good sign that there's no breach.
Scientists and engineers are also analyzing new seismic readings that will help them determine whether there are any anomalies in the earth surrounding the pipe. They're also using a government research vessel that can detect very small bubbles of methane gas, which would indicate leakage from well floor.
Some testing will help determine whether the low pressure readings might be caused by situations that don't threaten the well's integrity. They include the possibility that since the well blew out, so much oil and gas has escaped already that pressure in the well has dropped naturally. Wells said the pressure readings they're seeing are close to the models they developed for a depleted reservoir and a well with no breaches.
In a brief statement Friday morning, President Barack Obama called the progress "good news" before departing for a short vacation in Maine.
However, he cautioned "that we don't get ahead of ourselves here. You know, one of the problems with having this camera down there is that when the oil stops gushing, everybody feels like we're done, and we're not."
The 75-ton piece of equipment that's currently capping the well was designed to capture almost all of the oil flowing from the well and to send it to four processing ships on the surface of the ocean until the relief well was drilled.
Those vessels would have the capacity to capture as much as 80,000 barrels a day. The cap only would have been used to seal the well if a hurricane forced the ships away from the storm's path.
However, if the cap passes the pressure test, it could remain in place until relief wells permanently plug the original well.
Allen and BP are "twitchy" about the pressure readings for good reason, said Ian MacDonald, a professor of biological oceanography at Florida State University.
"They've know all along there's something wrong with the well bore, and they're seeing that there's something wrong because they're not getting up to the pressure that they want," he said.
The good news, though, is that they have a fully operational containment system that can keep oil out of the Gulf until the relief well is drilled, MacDonald said.
"They've got this cap on that's got a good, tight seal and they've got lots of hoses going up to the top that can recover oil," MacDonald said. "So barring a hurricane, they can just sit up there and recover the oil until they get the relief well drilled. And that's so much better than where we were."
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