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Cap tests befuddle scientists

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

NEW ORLEANS -- In a nail-biting day across the Gulf Coast, engineers struggled to make sense of puzzling pressure readings from the bottom of the sea Friday, trying to determine whether BP's capped oil well was holding tight or in danger of springing a new leak.

No immediate leaks were spotted, which was encouraging. But midway through the testing period on the new temporary cap that was bottling up the crude inside the well, the pressure readings were not rising as high as expected, said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the crisis.

Allen said two possible reasons were being debated by scientists: The reservoir that is the source of the oil could be running lower than expected three months into the spill. Or there could be an undiscovered leak somewhere down in the well. Allen ordered further study but remained confident.

''This is generally good news,'' he said. But he cautioned, ''We need to be careful not to do any harm or create a situation that cannot be reversed.''

He said the testing would go on into the night, at which point BP may decide whether to reopen the cap and allow some oil to spill into the sea again.

''No news is good news, I guess that's how I'd say it,'' Kent Wells, a BP PLC vice president, said on a conference call two hours after Allen spoke.

Throughout the day, no one was declaring victory -- or failure. President Barack Obama cautioned the public ''not to get too far ahead of ourselves,'' warning of the danger of new leaks ''that could be even more catastrophic.''

Even if the cap passes the test, more uncertainties lie ahead: Where will the oil already spilled go? How long will it take to clean up the coast? What will happen to the region's fishermen? And will life on the Gulf Coast ever be the same again?

''I'm happy the well is shut off, that there's a light at the end of the tunnel,'' said Tony Kennon, mayor of hard-hit Orange Beach, Ala. But ''I'm watching people moving away, people losing their jobs, everything they've got. How can I be that happy when that's happening to my neighbor?''

On Thursday, BP closed the vents on the new, tight-fitting cap and finally stopped crude from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since the April 20 oil-rig explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed the spill 5,000 feet down.

With the cap working like a giant cork to keep the oil inside the well, scientists kept watch on screens at sea and at BP's Houston headquarters, in case the buildup of pressure underground caused new leaks in the well pipe and in the surrounding bedrock that could make the disaster even worse.

Pressure readings after 24 hours were about 6,700 pounds per square inch and rising slowly, Allen said, below the 7,500 psi that would clearly show the well was not leaking. He said pressure continued to rise between 2 and 10 psi per hour. A low pressure reading, or a falling one, could mean the oil is escaping.

But Allen he said a seismic probe of the surrounding sea floor found no sign of a leak in the ground.