Reporting from Lafayette, La., and Los Angeles — The threat of summer storms moving through the Gulf of Mexico this week has raised the possibility that BP's recently shuttered well may have to be reopened as a safety precaution if work crews are forced to head for safe harbor.
A tropical system that hovered near Haiti on Wednesday is expected to move across southern Florida into the eastern gulf this weekend, bringing heavy thunderstorms and high seas to the area affected by the oil spill.
Meteorologists at AccuWeather.com say the system has a 60% chance of maturing into a tropical storm and a 10% chance of reaching hurricane strength, particularly if it crosses the warm waters between Florida and Cuba. National Hurricane Center forecasters put the chance of a tropical storm forming at 40%.
The weather report is yet another challenge facing BP and federal officials, who already worry that the sealed cap, which has kept the oil from gushing into gulf waters since last week, may further damage the well's underground pipes and cause oil to erupt through the ocean floor.
Video-equipped robot submarines, seismic sensors and other equipment are monitoring for such leaks or fissures. On Wednesday, Thad Allen, the federal oil spill response chief, said experts in Houston were considering their options if the ships monitoring for leaks had to leave the scene for what could be a few days to several weeks.
Those options include devising ways to monitor the well from an onshore location, leaving the cap sealed and unseen, or opening the cap and letting oil flow into the gulf again temporarily, thereby relieving pressure in the well and lessening the risk of further catastrophe.
"This is necessarily going to be a judgment call based on the risk associated by our science team," Allen said.
The ships that operate the robot submarines are some of the quickest and nimblest at the spill site, about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. They would probably be gone for only three or four days if a big storm were to come.
But bad weather could force more cumbersome vessels to abandon the spill site for up to two weeks, which could delay the implementation of relief wells, considered the ultimate solution to the disaster.
Two relief wells are planned to plug the ruptured well, the closest of which could begin the work at the end of the month, weather permitting. Permanently plugging the leak with mud and concrete could then take "from a number of days to a few weeks," said BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells.
"We're just continuing to monitor the weather," Wells said in a Wednesday afternoon conference call with reporters. "There's nothing that says we need to leave the location right now."
He also said the company had asked the government to approve plans to tamp down the oil leak with mud and concrete from the cap, a process called a "static kill." Successfully stanching the flow in such a fashion could hasten and improve the odds of permanently plugging it with the relief wells, he said.
Wednesday marked the 92nd day of the oil disaster. Before the well was capped, oil had been gushing at an estimated rate of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day since the night of April 20, bringing the spill to potentially well more than 200 million gallons.
On Thursday, four of the world's biggest oil companies are expected to announce a plan that they hope would prevent any future deep-water oil spill of a similar magnitude.
ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell will unveil a rapid-response system that they say could capture and contain deep-water well blowouts. The system, which would have $1 billion in initial funding, would include specially designed underwater containment equipment, with crews dedicated to maintain and inspect it, according to a document on the proposal.
Lin reported from Lafayette, La. and White reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Richard Fausset contributed to this report from Atlanta.