Reporting From Atlanta — Worried about a substance seeping near BP's sealed oil well, the federal government demanded late Sunday that the company intensely monitor the seabed and be prepared to reopen the well immediately if new oil leaks spring up around the wellhead.
At the same time, the government is allowing BP to keep the well sealed, which means the Gulf of Mexico will continue to be spared vast plumes of oil — at least for now.
The demands were included in a letter written by Thad Allen, the federal oil-spill response chief, to BP Chief Managing Director Bob Dudley late Sunday evening. Allen gave the company until 9 p.m. EDT to respond.
The letter does not identify the substance seeping near the well. BP and federal officials were unavailable for comment. But the letter's sharp tone suggests the government is unhappy with BP's response to previous demands that it vigorously check for potential problems associated with the plan to keep the well bottled up at the top.
"When seeps are detected, you are directed to marshal resources, quickly investigate, and report findings to the government in no more than four hours," Allen wrote. "I direct you to provide me a written procedure for opening the choke valve as quickly as possible without damaging the well should hydrocarbon seepage near the wellhead be confirmed."
The seal atop BP's well was applied Thursday, and it appeared to stop all of the oil from leaking into the gulf for the first time in 85 days. But the federal government is worried that the seal could create problems of its own. Specifically, if the well's underground pipes are cracked, the seal could exacerbate the flow of oil through them and up to the seafloor, creating a potentially unmanageable multitude of leaks.
Allen's letter refers to a "detected seep a distance from the well and undetermined anomalies at the well head." Allen did not say what those anomalies were.
During a morning conference call with reporters Sunday, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said that "a few bubbles" had been found near the well, but that they had been tested and found not to consist of hydrocarbons.
A test of the well's integrity was supposed to end Sunday afternoon, but in a press statement earlier Sunday, Allen said the government may extend the well test – and, by extension, the seal of the well -- in 24-hour increments.
BP officials have been cautiously optimistic about the state of the well since the tests began. The company has said the well was most likely to be in good shape if the pressure readings inside the pipes were 7,500 pounds per square inch or greater. Suttles said the pressure Sunday morning was 6,778 psi.
BP officials suspect the low readings are not due to leaks in the well, but to a loss of pressure from the reservoir because so much oil has escaped. An estimated 60,000 barrels of oil a day had been gushing out for nearly three months.
"We're not seeing any problems, at this point, of any issues with the shut-in," Suttles said. He added that if "encouraging signs continue," the company hoped to keep the well sealed at the top until a relief well could permanently plug it with mud and concrete – which may not be achieved until mid-August.
The federal government has struck a more anxious tone. In recent days, Allen has stressed that experts were worried about new leaks on the seafloor.
"While we are pleased that no oil is currently being released into the Gulf of Mexico and want to take all appropriate action to keep it that way, it is important that all decisions are driven by the science," Allen said in his prepared statement earlier Sunday. "Ultimately, we must ensure no irreversible damage is done which could cause uncontrolled leakage from numerous points on the sea floor."
Allen's letter late Sunday seemed to repeat the demands the government has made of BP of late, rather than introduce new ones. Its sharp tone suggested that he may be frustrated with BP's level of compliance.
In a statement, BP said it was "complying with all measures and protocols" Allen requested.
"We appreciate the government's support and leadership as we work side by side with federal scientists as the test continues, with agreed criteria that would determine the end of the test and the re-opening of the well," the statement said.
The back-and-forth between BP and the government made for a confusing weekend as observers attempted to decipher the status of one of the nation's worst environmental disasters.
On Sunday, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of a House subcommittee on energy and the environment, wrote Allen asking for "clarification," particularly because Allen, in a statement Saturday, seemed to indicate that the well would have to be reopened.
Markey said it might be better to open the well again, sparing additional damage to the well and allowing ships to haul away the crude.