Ambiguous test results from the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico kept scientists from the oil company BP and the federal government puzzling over details Friday as they tried to decide whether it’s safe to leave the well shut down.
The pressure inside the well is lower than officials had hoped when they closed the valves that stopped the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and the question is why.
One possibility is that the well has spewed out so much oil already that it’s simply lost some of its power.
But it’s also possible that there’s a slow leak somewhere – and that would be bad news.
Scientists are going out to collect more data to see if they can figure out what’s really going on.
They’d like to leave the valves closed, but not if that comes at the expense of doing irreversible damage to the well. Leaks would make it harder to plug the well permanently with cement. If they open the valves to play it safe, more oil will gush into the gulf – possibly for a matter of hours, possibly for days.
Halfway through a critical 48-hour window, the signs were promising but far from conclusive.
Kent Wells, a BP PLC vice president, said on an evening conference call that engineers had found no indication that the well has started leaking underground.
“No news is good news, I guess that’s how I’d say it,” Wells said.
Engineers are keeping watch over the well for a two-day period in a scientific, round-the-clock vigil to see if the well’s temporary cap is strong enough to hold back the oil, or if there are leaks either in the well itself or the sea floor.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government’s point man on the crisis, ordered the 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.
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.