BP, government clash over next step in spill fix

Oil firm opposes US plan to ease pressure in well

An oil cleanup worker raked the sand in Orange Beach, Ala., yesterday. BP officials said they do not agree with a US government strategy to ease pressure on the capped well by temporarily piping oil to the surface. An oil cleanup worker raked the sand in Orange Beach, Ala., yesterday. BP officials said they do not agree with a US government strategy to ease pressure on the capped well by temporarily piping oil to the surface. (Dave Martin/Associated Press)
By Colleen Long
Associated Press / July 19, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — BP and the Obama administration offered significantly differing views yesterday on whether the capped Gulf of Mexico oil well will have to be reopened, a conflict that may reflect an effort by the oil giant to avoid blame if crude starts spewing again.

Pilloried for nearly three months as it tried repeatedly to stop the leak, BP capped the nearly mile-deep well Thursday and wants to keep it that way. The government’s plan, however, is to eventually pipe oil to the surface, which would ease pressure on the fragile well but would entail oil spilling into the gulf for up to three more days.

“No one associated with this whole activity . . . wants to see any more oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico,’’ Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer, said yesterday. “Right now we don’t have a target to return the well to flow.’’

An administration official familiar with the spill oversight, however, said a seep and possible methane were found near the busted oil well. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because an announcement about the next steps had not been made yet.

The concern all along — since pressure readings on the cap were not as high as expected — was that there is a leak elsewhere in the well bore. If that is the case, the cap may have to be reopened to prevent the environmental disaster from becoming even worse and harder to fix.

The official, who would not clarify what is seeping near the well, also said BP is not complying with the government’s demand for more monitoring.

BP spokesman Mark Salt declined to comment on the allegation, but said “we continue to work very closely with all government scientists on this.’’

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the Obama administration’s spill response chief, insisted yesterday that “nothing has changed’’ since Saturday, when he said oil would eventually be piped to surface ships. The government is overseeing BP’s work to stop the leak, which ultimately is to be plugged using a relief well.

Allen decided to extend testing of the cap that had been scheduled to end yesterday. That means the oil will stay in the well for now as scientists continue to monitor pressure readings. It was not clear how long that would take.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security referred questions to a statement issued by Allen; neither he nor BP officials could explain the apparent contradiction in plans.

Suttles’s comments carved out an important piece of turf for BP: If Allen sticks with the containment plan and oil again pours into the gulf, even briefly, it will be the government’s doing, not BP’s.

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The company very much wants to avoid a repeat of the live underwater video that showed millions of gallons of oil spewing from the blown well for weeks.

“I can see why they’re pushing for keeping the cap on and shut in until the relief well is in place,’’ said Daniel Keeney, president of a Dallas-based public relations firm.

The government wants to eliminate any chance of making matters worse, while BP is loath to lose the momentum it gained the moment it finally halted the leak, Keeney said.

“They want to project being on the same team, but they have different end results that benefit each,’’ he said.

Oil would have to be released under Allen’s plan, which would ease concerns that the capped reservoir might force its way out through another route. Those concerns stem from pressure readings in the cap that have been lower than expected.

Scientists still aren’t sure whether the pressure readings mean a leak elsewhere in the well bore, possibly deep down in bedrock, which could make the seabed unstable. Oil would have to be released into the water to relieve pressure and allow crews to hook up the ships, BP and Allen have said.

There have been no signs of a new leak, Suttles said yesterday morning. Allen said later in the day that scientists and engineers would continue to evaluate and monitor the cap through acoustic, sonar, and seismic readings.

They’re trying to determine whether low pressure readings mean that more oil than expected poured into the Gulf of Mexico since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people and touching off one of America’s worst environment crises.

Allen and BP have said they don’t know how long the trial run will continue. It was set to end yesterday afternoon, but the deadline — an extension from the original Saturday cutoff — came and went with no word on what’s next.

To plug the busted well, BP is drilling two relief wells, one of them a backup. The subsequent job of jamming the broken well with mud and cement could take days or a few weeks.

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