The federal government's point man for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill authorized BP to keep the cap on its busted well for another 24 hours after the company pledged to closely monitor the seafloor for signs of a new leak.Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said in a statement Monday that a federal science team held a conference call with BP representatives Sunday night. He said the scientists got answers they wanted about how BP is monitoring the seabed in case any new leaks erupt from the capped well.
"The federal science team got the answers they were seeking and the commitment from BP to meet their monitoring and notification obligations. Ongoing monitoring and full analysis of both the seepage and methane will continue in coordination with the science team," said the statement.
Allen had written BP the day before to say a seep had been detected a distance from the well and demanded BP step up monitoring of the seabed.
Allen said he'll only allow the cap to stay on if BP continues meeting its obligations to watch for signs that it could possibly worsen the situation.
CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella reports that a stream of bubbles coming from the containment cap itself, which may contain high levels of methane, is also worrying scientists.
Allen made it clear the testing would only continue if the oil company bosses "continue to meet their obligations to rigorously monitor for any signs that this test could worsen the overall situation."
"At any moment, we have the ability to return to the safe containment of the oil on the surface until the time the relief well is completed and the well is permanently killed," added the former Coast Guard admiral.
On "the Early Show" Monday morning, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner said that in addition to concern about the bubbles rising from the well head and the oil seepage detected three kilometers from the site, the government has an additional concern:
"One of our own boats, the NOAA Pisces boat, detected some anomalies at the top of the sea above the well head," she told anchor Harry Smith.
Browner said BP will continue to monitor the situation and make the data available to for government analysis. "And if we can leave the cap in place, obviously, we'll leave the cap in place," she said.
The concern all along - since pressure readings on the cap weren't as high as expected - was a leak elsewhere in the wellbore, meaning the cap may have to be reopened to prevent the environmental disaster from becoming even worse and harder to fix.
"When seeps are detected, you are directed to marshal resources, quickly investigate, and report findings to the government in no more than four hours. 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 well head be confirmed," Allen said in the Sunday letter to BP Managing Director Bob Dudley.
When asked about the seep and the monitoring, BP spokesman Mark Salt would only say that "we continue to work very closely with all government scientists on this."
BP said Monday that the cost of dealing with the oil spill has now reached nearly $4 billion. The company said it has made payments totaling $207 million to settle individual claims for damages from the spill along the southern coast of the United States. To date, almost 116,000 claims have been submitted and more than 67,500 payments have been made, totaling $207 million.
With the newly installed cap keeping oil from BP's busted well out of the Gulf during a trial run, this weekend offered a chance for the oil company and government to gloat over their shared success - the first real victory in fighting the spill. Instead, the two groups have spent the past two days disagreeing over what to with the undersea machinery holding back the gusher.
The apparent disagreement began to sprout Saturday when Allen said the cap bottling up the oil would eventually be hooked up to a mile-long pipe to pump the crude to ships on the surface. But early the next day, BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said the cap should shut the oil in until relief wells are finished.
That could be risky, reports Cobiella. With the oil held back, pressure is slowly building in the well bore and on the failed blowout preventer. If there's a weak point, the pressure could make it worse.
After nearly three months of harsh criticism as it tried repeatedly to stop the leak, BP PLC capped the nearly mile-deep well Thursday and wants to keep it that way. The government's plan, however, is to eventually pipe oil to the surface, which would ease pressure on the fragile well but require up to three more days of oil spilling into the Gulf.
Both sides played down the apparent contradiction Sunday. Allen, ultimately the decision-maker, later said the containment plan he described Saturday hadn't changed, and that he and BP executives were on the same page.
The company very much wants to avoid a repeat of the live underwater video that showed millions of gallons of oil spewing from the blown well for weeks.
"I can see why they're pushing for keeping the cap on and shut in until the relief well is in place," said Daniel Keeney, president of a Dallas-based public relations firm.
The government wants to eliminate any chance of making matters worse, while BP is loath to lose the momentum it gained the moment it finally halted the leak, Keeney said.
"They want to project being on the same team, but they have different end results that benefit each," he said.
Oil would have to be released under Allen's plan, which would ease concerns that the capped reservoir might force its way out through another route. Those concerns stem from pressure readings in the cap that have been lower than expected.
Scientists still aren't sure whether the pressure readings mean a leak elsewhere in the well bore, possibly deep down in bedrock, which could make the seabed unstable. Oil would have to be released into the water to relieve pressure and allow crews to hook up the ships, BP and Allen have said.
Allen said testing on the cap would continue. Engineers are looking to determine whether low pressure readings mean that more oil than expected poured into the Gulf of Mexico since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people and touching off one of America's worst environment crises.
"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 a news release.
Both Allen and BP have said they don't know how long the trial run will continue. It was set to end Sunday afternoon, but the deadline came and went with no word on what's next.
To plug the busted well, BP is drilling two relief wells, one of them as a backup. The company said work on the first one was far enough along that officials expect to reach the broken well's casing, or pipes, deep underground by late this month. The subsequent job of jamming the well with mud and cement could take days or a few weeks.
It will take months, or possibly years for the Gulf to recover, though cleanup efforts continued and improvements in the water could be seen in the days since the oil stopped flowing. Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf, according to government estimates.
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