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BP Well Stays Shut as U.S. Says Leaks Pose No Threat

BP Well Stays Shut as Leaks Deemed ‘Inconsequential’
Thad Allen answers reporters' questions while standing next to an illustration of the well cap stack during a news conference at the Department of Health and Human Services. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

BP Plc is keeping its Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico shut today after the U.S. government said seeps detected at the site don’t pose a threat.

The escape of methane gas is “inconsequential,” and pressure inside the well is slowly rising, a positive sign that BP won’t need to reopen it and discharge more oil, National Incident Commander Thad Allen said yesterday at a press conference. A seep 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) away isn’t from the well, he said.

BP shut valves atop Macondo on July 15 for a pressure test to determine the integrity of the well, which had been gushing for almost three months after an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Pressure in the sealed well was 6,825 pounds per square inch today, the company said on its website.

“Pressure slowly building is a good sign,” said Darryl Bourgoyne, director of the petroleum engineering laboratory at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The seeps “could be a leak, it could be biogenic gas, gas created by bacteria.”

BP fell less than a pence to 387.45 pence at 4:35 p.m. in London trading. The stock has gained 27 percent since June 25, when it hit a 14-year low. It’s still 41 percent lower than on April 20, the day of the blowout on the rig that started the leak.

Sealed Well

BP and the government had said before the test that pressure of about 8,000 pounds per square inch would establish the well as safe to seal without the threat of new leaks.

Scientists are divided over why the pressure has remained lower, Allen said. Some hold the view the pressure dropped as the reservoir of oil and gas was depleted by the 87-day gusher, while others think it signals an as-yet undetected leak, he said.

Allen and BP appeared to clash over the status of the well on July 18. Doug Suttles, BP chief operating officer for exploration and production, told reporters that morning the company planned to keep the well sealed until it could be permanently blocked by a relief well that’s expected to plug it with mud and then cement.

Allen ordered BP to ramp up monitoring, submit written procedures and have other information ready for scientists, citing the detected seep. He gave the company another 24 hours to keep the valves closed. That period ends today at 4 p.m. New York time.

Additional Monitoring

“We asked for some additional monitoring and that was the source of some tension,” Carol Browner, President Barack Obama’s senior energy adviser, said in an interview yesterday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” The government will be “adamant” about getting information its scientists need, she said.

“This is a crucial period for both government and BP,” said Rick S. Kurtz, a professor at Central Michigan University who has written about oil spill policy. “For BP, the goal isn’t necessarily fully in alignment with the government.”

While the company may perceive little risk that pressure building up within the well will cause another blowout, “if that were to happen, the White House could be accused of caving in to another poorly thought-out BP solution,” Kurtz said. “So they’re being cautious.”

BP and the government are now trying to sort out how to continue the necessary monitoring without delaying installation of lines that will expand the capacity to collect oil in ships on the surface. Capturing would resume if the government decides it’s the safest procedure while BP continues work on the relief well.

Block Flow

BP is exploring whether mud can be injected to block the flow of oil and gas, Senior Vice President Kent Wells told reporters yesterday. That would be a “static rather than a dynamic top kill,” he said. BP failed to kill the uncapped well in May, as the gusher ejected 30,000 barrels of drilling mud, golf balls and rubber scrap intended to stop it.

“It’s a very different situation when you have the well shut in,” Wells said. “We can pump at low rates, we can keep it at low pressures.”

The company said yesterday it stands ready to resume burning about 8,000 barrels of oil a day aboard the Q4000 vessel, and to collect as much as 25,000 barrels a day aboard the production ship Helix Producer I. BP is continuing work to connect two other vessels that would bring total capturing capacity to as much as 80,000 barrels a day.

Resuming Oil Collection

To resume surface collection, BP would have to spill oil into the Gulf for several days to reduce pressure enough for the ships to handle the flow, and clear the well of any sand that may have collected, Allen said.

BP said yesterday it has spent $3.95 billion on the spill, the biggest in U.S. history. The disaster may cost the U.S. Gulf Coast region 17,000 jobs and about $1.2 billion in lost economic growth by year-end even if the flow is stopped permanently next month, Moody’s Analytics said.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Interior Department continued their week of hearings in Louisiana on the cause of the incident. Donald Vidrine, a BP well-site manager on the rig, declined to testify today because of health reasons. A third week of hearings will be held in Houston next month.

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