NEW ORLEANS – Pressure readings have been less than ideal from the new cap shutting oil into BP’s busted well, but the crude will remain locked in while engineers look for evidence of whether there is an undiscovered leak, the federal point man for the disaster said Friday.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said on a conference call that pressure readings from the cap have not reached the level that would show there are no new leaks in the well.
Allen said BP’s test of the cap, which started 24 hours previously by shutting three valves and stopping the flow of oil into the water, would continue for at least 6 hours. It was scheduled to last up to 48 hours.
He said the developments were “generally good news” but needed close monitoring.
Allen said there are two possible reasons being debated by scientists on the project for why the pressure hasn’t risen as high as desired: The reservoir that is the source of the oil could be depleting after a three-month spill, or there could be an undiscovered leak somewhere down in the well.
“We don’t know because we don’t know the exact condition of the well bore,” Allen said.
He said the test will go ahead for another 6-hour period before being reassessed to see if BP needs to reopen the cap and go back to piping some of the oil to ships on the surface.
If it were reopened, Allen said, “There’s no doubt there would be some discharge into the environment.”
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.
He said a seismic probe of the surrounding sea floor found no sign of a leak in the ground, one of the major concerns because oil erupting into the surroundings would be harder to contain and could weaken the well before it is plugged for good.
The cap is a temporary measure. Even if it holds, BP needs to plug the gusher with cement and mud deep underground, where the seal will hold more permanently than any cap from above could.
Kent Wells, BP PLC vice president, earlier said readings after the first 17 hours showed no signs that oil was escaping through unknown breaches farther down in the well piping that leads deep under the sea floor to the oil reservoir.
Wells also said work would resume on a relief well, the oil giant’s more permanent solution meant to plug the leak for good underground to end one of the nation’s worst environmental catastrophes.
That’s also a sign that things were going well. Engineers had stopped drilling one of the wells Thursday in case that bore hole deep underground could be affected by the oil cap effort.
BP finally stopped oil from spewing into the sea Thursday for the first time since an April 20 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers and unleashed the spill 5,000 feet beneath the water’s surface.
It came after repeated attempts to stop the oil — everything from robotics to different capping techniques to stuffing the hole with mud and golf balls. The week leading up to the moment where the oil cloud ended was a fitful series of starts and setbacks.
President Barack Obama said Friday the progress was good news, but cautioned an anxious public not to “get too far ahead of ourselves.” Obama said the cap was still being tested and there was still an “enormous clean up job” and ensuring quick compensation for Gulf residents and business in the offing.
The accomplishment was greeted with hope, high expectations — and, in many cases along the beleaguered coastline, disbelief. BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles late Thursday urged caution and warned the flow could resume, saying it wasn’t a time for celebration.
There was no end in sight to cleaning up somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons that the government estimates spilled into the Gulf.
Long strands of white absorbent boom strung along the beach were stained chocolate brown at Orange Beach, Ala., early Friday after a fresh wave of pea-sized tar balls washed ashore. Charter boat captains who can’t fish because of the oil spill patrolled the shore looking for more oil slicks.
A few miles away, an oily sheen swirled around a $4.6 million steel oil barrier erected at the pass into Perdido Bay, located near the Alabama-Florida border.
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said shutting the well was a hopeful sign, but the damage is done.
“The other side is they’re not paying claims and 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?”
Kennon said BP has only paid $50,000 of his city’s claim of $1.9 million for damages and response.
Claims czar Ken Feinberg will administer a BP-paid $20 billion fund for losses from the spill. For some businesses, the process has been difficult enough already.
“They told us that they’re cutting us a check for $14,000, which is pretty much a slap in the face” said Dea Baxter, office manager for Griffin Fishing, a recreational charter fishing service in Lafitte. “We’ve sent more than that out in refunds and cancellations.”
BP said Friday it has paid out $201 million so far to individuals and businesses. It said more than 32,000 claimants got one or more payments in the past 10 weeks.
More than 114,000 claims have been submitted so far, but nearly half didn’t have enough information for BP to make payment, the oil giant said.
The Gulf Coast has been shaken economically, environmentally and psychologically by the hardships of the past three months. That feeling of being swatted around — by BP, by the government, even by fate — was evident in the wide spectrum of reactions to news of the capping.
The fishing industry in particular has been buffeted by fallout from the spill as fishing waters and oyster grounds were shut up and down the coast.
The saga has also devastated BP, costing it billions in everything from cleanup to repair efforts to plunging stock prices. BP shares, which have lost nearly half their value since the disaster started, jumped in the last hour of Thursday trading on Wall Street after the oil stopped. But they were down again more than 3 percent Friday.
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