BP Continues to Monitor Cap; Encouraged by Early Results

BY Tom LeGro  July 16, 2010 at 9:14 AM EDT

Updated 5:33 p.m. ET
The results of pressure tests on the shut-in oil well have not been ideal over the past 24 hours, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said Friday afternoon — but the well will remain closed for at least six more hours while scientists conduct more tests of the its structural integrity.

Engineers were hoping that the pressure would reach at least 7,500 psi, which would indicate that there were no cracks allowing oil to escape elsewhere from the well bore. Instead, the pressure is at an inconclusive 6,700 psi. That could mean that there is an undiscovered leak — though scientists have seen no evidence of one yet — or it could mean that the amount of oil in the reservoir has been depleted after three months of leaking.

BP will continue the test for six more hours and then reassess whether to open the well, Allen said. If they decide to keep it closed, the test could continue until mid-day Saturday — the end of the scheduled 48 hours.

Updated 11:15 a.m. ET
President Obama spoke to reporters about the oil spill Friday before he departed Washington for the weekend. The president said BP’s capping of the spill was “good news” but cautioned that testing continued.

Posted 9:30a.m. ET
For the first time in nearly three months, oil is not spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, BP officials report. Indeed, on Friday morning, BP’s underwater camera feeds showed no leaking oil. Engineers and scientists continue to monitor the new cap on the broken well for pressure changes.

Early Friday, BP vice president Kent Wells said pressure readings are good so far inside the new cap and that there is no sign of any new leaks underground. Later Friday, BP will conduct a seismic survey of the site to determine if oil is leaking lower in the well bore. The results of that survey won’t be available for 24 hours, Wells said.

Now what? BP continues to conduct “well integrity tests.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune explains:

“The integrity test involves measuring the pressure inside the well. If pressure rises and holds at 8,000 to 9,000 pounds per square inch, the well could remain closed. If it is lower than that level, however, it will be reopened and oil would again be sucked to vessels on the surface. The low pressure readings would indicate to scientists that oil is escaping through one or more fissures in the well.”

According to the Associated Press, the worst-case scenarios are:

“[I]f the oil forced down into the bedrock ruptured the seafloor irreparably. Leaks deep in the well bore might also be found, which would mean that oil would continue to flow into the Gulf. And there’s always the possibility of another explosion, either from too much pressure or from a previously unknown unstable piece of piping.”

If something goes wrong, BP could reopen the well at any moment. But the longer the integrity test goes, the more the results are likely to be promising.

BP is also planning to start drilling again on a relief well, which will be part of the permanent fix of plugging the well at the bottom. Here is a graphic of how it’s all supposed to work.

Though things looking promising so far, Bill Barrow of the Times-Picayune writes about the mental effects of the disaster, which “will be felt for years.”

Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic takes a step back to survey the damage. He identifies “five key stories for understanding what really happened — and what still might.”

And on a different track, The Washington Post follows up on a new public relations problem for BP:

“BP faced a new outcry Thursday about whether the Scottish and British governments sought to smooth BP’s oil exploration contract talks with Libya by releasing prisoners, including the man convicted of bombing the Pan Am plane that went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The bombing killed 270 people, including 189 Americans.”

BP denied, however, that in 2009 it sought the specific release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi when progress on the Libyan venture bogged down.