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BP told it can keep well sealed after scare over possible leaks

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has authorized BP to keep its Deepwater Horizon well sealed, despite concerns Sunday that scientists have detected leaks of oil and methane gas near the well.

In a statement released shortly before 7 a.m. Monday, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the decision was made after a conference call between BP and government scientists.

"During the conversation, the federal science team got the answers they were seeking and the commitment from BP to meet their monitoring and notification obligations," Allen said in a statement. "I authorized BP to continue the integrity test for another 24 hours."

The "integrity test" is how BP and government officials refer to the sealing of the well last week with a new containment cap that since Thursday has cut off the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The initial closing of the containment cap's valves was supposed to last 48 hours as a test to determine whether the well was leaking elsewhere, but has now lasted four days. BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said Sunday that the oil giant would like to keep the well sealed until a relief well kills it permanently next month.

Allen indicated in his statement Monday that he’d allow the test to continue "if they (BP) continue to meet their obligations to rigorously monitor for any signs that this test could worsen the overall situation."

No details of the government scientists' concerns were released, and the exact nature of what scientists have discovered remained unclear.

In a letter Sunday to Bob Dudley, BP's managing director, Allen revealed that scientists had detected a seep of oil in the Deepwater Horizon vicinity and that "undetermined anomalies" had been detected at the top of the well 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf.

On Monday, Allen's statement described those observations as "a seep near the well and the possible observation of methane over the well." Bubbles rising from the new containment cap have been visible in live video from the site since last week, but it was unknown if that was the observation Allen referred to. BP officials have said such bubbles are not unusual at deepwater wells and that they have not been able to capture any for analysis.

Government officials have been concerned that the explosion and fire that triggered the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe three months ago may have damaged the well below the seafloor and that closing the containment cap could make matters worse by forcing oil into the rock surrounding the well. Their concerns have been fed by lower than expected pressures in the cap.

BP announced overnight that the pressure, which was 6,778 pounds per square inch Sunday morning, had risen to 6,792 psi by 3 a.m. EDT Monday.

Allen's statement was his third in 24 hours that indicated tension between government officials and BP over the containment cap test. On Sunday, just a few hours after Suttles told reporters BP would like to keep the containment cap sealed indefinitely, Allen issued a pointed statement saying that there was no agreement to do that. He followed that with the letter to Dudley in which Allen demanded that BP inform him within four hours if any new leak is discovered and provide a written explanation of its intentions for the containment cap.


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