BP gingerly moved ahead with tests of its newly sealed oil well Friday, stepping up scans of the seafloor for leaks that would signal potential problems with a containment operation that has rarely gone as planned.
The gusher of oil that has been fouling the gulf since late April was turned off Thursday when BP closed a valve on a new well cap, erasing the roiling clouds of crude that day after day have fed the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
But the deep-sea video scenes of clear water may be temporary. If the pressure in the sealed wellhead doesn’t rise to a certain point and stay steady, it could be an indication that oil is seeping into the seabed from the well hole, which could make matters worse.
If that happens, BP will immediately open the cap valves to release oil and resume a collection operation that had been capturing some of the leak and funneling it to ships.
A key test designed to reveal whether the well hole is intact or damaged got off to a good start early Friday when pressure readings rose to 6,700 pounds per square inch. But when the pressure increase slowed to a crawl, federal officials ordered BP to increase monitoring.
“We’re at the point where there’s enough uncertainty … we need to be careful not to do any harm,” said Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who is overseeing the spill response.
After consulting with scientists Friday afternoon, Allen told BP to take more seismic soundings of the seabed. A federal ship with the ability to detect methane bubbles in the water — which would signal an oil leak — was also called into action.
Allen said there were alternative explanations for why the pressure rise was not more rapid once it exceeded 6,000 psi: There could be a breach in the well hole, or three months of leaking could have disgorged so much crude that pressure in the underlying oil reservoir has diminished.
BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells seemed more confident that the capping had not caused new leaks in the well casing. “We haven’t seen any indication … we have any oil or gas escaping from the well,” he said.
Wells added that Friday’s readings were consistent with what would be expected if pressure in the oil reservoir had dropped.
If the procedure proves the well hole is in good shape, BP could leave the well sealed. Or it could open the cap valves and restart the collection system, which by the end of the month is slated to have enough capacity to capture the entire leak volume, estimated to be as much as 60,000 barrels a day. That decision has yet to be made, Wells said.
Cleanup operations have gone well in recent days, boosted by good weather and at least a temporary halt in the leak. “This is the first 24-hour period where we can truly go on the offensive, go to where the oil is,” said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zunkunft, the federal on-scene coordinator.
The response team skimmed 70,000 barrels of oil in the last three days. On Wednesday, Zunkunft said, boats were able to collect more oil than the well was spilling for the first time since the blowout.
In the meantime, engineers are carefully preparing the final stages of drilling the first of two relief wells that are expected to provide the ultimate fix. One or both of the wells, scheduled to be finished next month, will be used to inject heavy drilling mud into the bottom of the blown-out well, which will then be permanently plugged with cement.
President Obama on Friday called the cap progress “good news” but warned that the nation was not through with the gulf disaster.
Speaking to reporters in the White House Rose Garden before a family trip to Maine, Obama said the danger of the real-time underwater videos is that “everyone feels like we’re done, and we’re not. We’ve still got a big job to do.”
Gulf residents were not ready to celebrate. “We hope it works. But this season’s shot anyway,” Bill Wilson, an Orange Beach, Ala., fisherman, said as he commiserated with other fishermen in a bar overlooking the water at Zeke’s Marina.
If not for the spill, he said, the docks would be jammed with captains and deckhands hauling in their catch in the high season for snapper. Instead, the docks are empty.
The only business that seems to be making any money is the dock store, which sells shirts printed with a swordfish and a slogan, “Save Our Way of Life,” to raise money to help clean up the spill.
“It will help if they cap it, but where will all the oil already out there go? That’s the unknown,” said Tim Wright, a boat salesman in Orange Beach who says his business has plummeted 50% since the spill.
Christi Parsons of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.