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BP, Government Bump Heads Over Next Steps for Oil Cap

July 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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BP was granted an additional 24 hours to keep the Gulf of Mexico oil well containment cap sealed, but something appears to be seeping from the seafloor about two miles away. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The broken oil well deep under the Gulf of Mexico stayed capped today for a fourth day, as BP and the Obama administration wrestled with how to read new information from the site.

The cap continued to hold. And BP was allowed to keep it sealed for another 24 hours. But tests showed seepage on the ocean floor roughly two miles away. And tiny bubbles on the wellhead indicated small gas leaks.

This afternoon, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the seepage is a major concern.

ADM. THAD ALLEN (RET.), national incident commander: But it is the collective opinion of the folks that are talking about this that the small seepages we are finding right now do not present, at least at this point, any indication that there is a threat to the wellbore. If we think that was going to happen, we would be taking immediate action.

Now, having said that, if there is any indication of a precipitous drop in pressure or any reason why we might need to do something about it, we would need to have to vent immediately to let — relieve the pressure on the well and move to longer-term containment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The admiral also said the bubble do not appear to be linked to any significant problem.

ADM. THAD ALLEN: It’s hard to predict the future on whether or not and if and when we’re going to have to activate long-term containment, because that is conditions-based as we move forward with the well integrity test. And we’re looking at the conditions every 24 hours and making those kinds of decisions, understanding that each day that we have the well shut in, that’s a lot less pollution and oil that’s going into the environment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Allen was already involved in a dispute with BP over the future of the cap.

Late Sunday, he sent a strongly worded letter to managing director Bob Dudley. In it Allen said, “I direct to you provide me a written procedure for opening the cap as quickly as possible without damaging the well should hydrocarbon seepage near the wellhead be confirmed.”

BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles had said Sunday in a conference call the cap should stay shut until relief wells are finished.

DOUG SUTTLES, COO, Global Exploration, BP: We’re hopeful that, if the encouraging signs continue, we will be able to continue the integrity test all the way to the point that we get the well killed. So, right now, there is no target set to open the well back up to flow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The oil company warned that opening the containment cap to relieve pressure would let oil flow freely into the Gulf for several days. That’s until a mile-long pipe connected to surface ships can be hooked up.

Today, in New Orleans, the Coast Guard’s on-scene coordinator insisted the cap wasn’t meant to be a permanent containment measure.

REAR ADM. PAUL ZUKUNFT, federal on-scene coordinator: This well integrity test wasn’t designed at the outset to shut in the well. It was designed as a containment system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, crews along the Gulf Coast continued cleanup efforts, scooping tar balls along the shoreline. And Gulf area businesses were still watching the recovery process closely.

MATTHEW WOOLDRIDGE, business manager: I guess everyone around here, as far as business is concerned, you know, we’re all looking forward to what BP does, and hopefully get things cleaned up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As of now, BP says 43,000 people are involved in the spill containment and cleanup. The company said today it has spent just under $4 billion on its response, and counting.