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BP's test of newly installed cap is put off

The government says more analysis is necessary before the well can be sealed.

July 14, 2010|Richard Fausset and Nicole Santa Cruz

ATLANTA AND NEW ORLEANS — The head of the federal response to the gulf oil spill announced Tuesday night that the government and BP would delay a crucial test to determine whether it was safe to use a newly applied sealing cap to finally shut down the runaway well.

It is hoped that the test will determine whether there are any serious leaks plaguing the 13,000-foot hole in the earth -- apart, of course, from the notorious leak at the top.

The test was originally scheduled to take place Tuesday evening. Now it appears that it will not take place until late Wednesday at the earliest.

In a statement on the government's spill response website, former Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the timetable changed after a discussion he had with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, BP officials, geologists and other experts.

"As a result of these discussions, we decided that the process may benefit from additional analysis that will be performed tonight and tomorrow," Allen said in a statement.

A representative from the spill response's information center could not elaborate on the reasons for the delay, and BP and Department of Homeland Security officials did not respond to calls late Tuesday.

Allen's four-sentence statement specifically mentioned that the group of experts had reviewed a seismic mapping run that was made around the well site Tuesday morning. Allen is scheduled to make a statement Wednesday afternoon.

The new cap, which was affixed to the well Monday, holds out hope for an end to a disaster that has stretched nearly three months, but success is far from certain. Much depends on the upcoming test, which will give experts an idea about how stable the well is below the sea floor.

If it is determined that there are likely leaks in the underground pipe, closing off the well with a cap could exacerbate them. That could eventually send oil seeping up through other parts of the sea floor, making a solution exponentially more difficult.

In that case, to prevent that possibility, BP and government officials would let the oil continue to flow out from the top of the well, where some of it would be collected using riser pipes and containment ships. The company promises that new ships and new technology will allow it to collect all of the flowing oil -- estimated at up to 60,000 barrels a day -- by late July.

But if tests show the well to be stable for 48 hours, BP may use the 150,000-pound cap to block all of the flowing oil for the first time since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20.

To conduct the test, the company will slowly shut off the valves that allow oil to flow from the new cap. The well will be sealed, and if test results are good, the seal will remain.

At a news conference in Houston early Tuesday, Allen said he was "very confident" that crews could use the cap to stop the oil flow, but only long enough to perform the test.

"What we can't tell is the current condition of the well bore below the sea floor," he said. As a result, Allen was reluctant to guess at the chances of success.

Allowing the ships to take up the oil is only a partial fix, since the vessels would have to disconnect in the event of a hurricane.

Government and BP officials have long maintained that the only permanent solution will come when the gushing well is intercepted by one of two relief wells now under construction. The nearest relief well could have the troubled well plugged up with drilling mud and cement by mid-August, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said.

Sharon Gauthe, a community organizer from Thibodeaux, La., has been following updates on the repair on TV. "I just pray it's going to work," she said.

In New Orleans on Tuesday, it was the human cost of the spill, and the policies it has spawned, that dominated the second day of hearings by a new commission directed by President Obama to study the rig blowout and its effects.

Much of the conversation focused on the Obama administration's unveiling Monday of a revamped moratorium on deep-water drilling. Last month, a federal judge ruled that the administration likely acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" when it issued its original moratorium a few weeks after the rig blowout so that safety rules could be reassessed.

Administration officials hope the new moratorium, which they say is more narrowly drawn than the original, will pass muster with the courts.

It had not won approval, however, with many Louisianans, who fear that a moratorium would cost the state thousands of jobs.

In a presentation to the commission, Charlotte Randolph, president of coastal Lafourche Parish, said the spill had devastated the local fishing industry and that the moratorium was "adding insult to injury."

Randolph, one of several speakers who opposed the moratorium, estimated that 45% of the parish's tax base could be affected by the ban, which could last through Nov. 30.

Hornbeck Offshore Services Inc., one of the companies that challenged the administration's earlier deep-water drilling moratorium, said in a statement Tuesday that it was reviewing the revised moratorium and had "substantial concerns about its consistency" with the federal judge's ruling last month.

Meanwhile, the bills continued piling up for BP. The White House announced Tuesday that it had sent another bill to the oil company and other "responsible parties" on the hook for the government response. This time the tab came to about $100 million, bringing the total billings to $222 million so far.

BP has paid the first three bills, totaling $122.3 million, in full, the White House said.

richard.fausset@latimes.com

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.

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