Gulf Oil Plug Attempt Looms amid Small Leaks

Oil cleanup workers clean up tar balls on Pensacola Beach, Fla., Aug. 1, 2010.
AP Photo
The government's point man on the Gulf oil spill says several minor leaks have sprung near the blown-out well.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Monday that engineers are working to repair the leaks and that they will not delay the effort to plug the gusher for good.

He says BP crews plan to test whether the company can proceed with its "static kill" plan. That involves pumping mud and perhaps cement down the throat of the mile-deep busted well.

He says the process could take more than two days to complete.

He and BP executives also say it's uncertain how a pair of relief wells would be used to ultimately kill the oil leak.

Special Section: Gulf Coast Oil Disaster

There's no guarantee of success, and engineers still plan to follow it up days later with a similar procedure through relief wells they've been digging for months.

But the oil giant's engineers and petroleum experts say it's the clearest path yet to choke the gusher and make it even easier for the crews drilling the relief well to ensure oil can never again erupt from the deep-sea well, which has spewed as much as 184 million gallons since the rig connected to it blew up in April and killed 11 workers.

The developments have the makings for an interesting week.

"It could be the beginning of the end," said Darryl Bourgoyne, director of Petroleum Engineering Research Lab at Louisiana State University.

When it begins, crews will slowly pump heavy mud through lines installed last month straight down the throat of the leaky well. If the mud forces the oil back into the massive underground reservoir and scientists are confident the pressure remains stable, then engineers can pump in fresh cement to seal it.

"The only thing that separates the oil from the sea now is the valve. This puts thousands of feet of mud and cement in between," said Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute. "The idea is to have as many barriers as possible between the ocean and the reservoir. We're adding an extra level of safety."

Officials may then begin the process of choking the underground reservoir feeding the well by pumping mud and then cement down an 18,000-foot relief well. BP officials have long said the process is the only sure way to choke the well for good - plugging up the source of the oil, not just its route to the sea.

No oil has leaked from the busted well since engineers were able to fix a tightly fitting cap over its outlet two weeks ago, and boats skimming the oil and spraying subsea dispersant have been able to contain some of the spill.

But critics have raised questions about the long-term effects of the dispersant on sea life, and congressional investigators said Saturday that the Coast Guard routinely approved BP requests to use thousands of gallons of chemicals a day despite a federal directive to cut its use.

Toxic Chemical Used to Clean Gulf?

Adm. Allen said Sunday that federal regulators did not ignore environmental guidelines, but that some field commanders were given the authority to allow more dispersants to be used on a case-by-case basis.

CBS News correspondent Don Teague reports the lingering questions over the safety of the dispersants come as life on some Gulf beaches gets back to normal.

In Pensacola, Fla., there were crowded beaches this weekend for the first time in months - welcome news for business owners who say the worst of the oil spill depression may have passed.

"I think we have more tourists. There are a lot of people from out of town," said one woman on the beach.