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Oil leak in choke line delays start of latest test by BP

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

If the well can handle the high pressures, BP could leave the well shut in, and it would not further pollute the gulf.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs discussed the hazards of the test Wednesday.

"If the structural integrity of the well bore isn't strong, what you'll get is oil . . . coming out into the strata," he said. That could mean leaks "from multiple points on the seafloor."

If the pressure readings are too low, BP will abandon the test. The well will be reopened and gush anew. BP would then resume trying to capture as much leaking oil as possible, using lines to surface ships and a new "top hat" on the gusher, while continuing to drill a relief well that could kill Macondo with mud and cement.

With the test imminent, BP paused Wednesday in its effort to drill the first relief well, which is only four feet away, laterally, from the Macondo well, which blew out April 20, killing 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon. The decision to halt work on the relief well was a precautionary move to ensure that hydrocarbons don't surge into the new hole from the Macondo well during the integrity test, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said Wednesday. Work on the relief well will resume when the test ends, he said. The drilling of a second relief well had already been suspended, pending results of the first relief well.

The final run-up to the integrity test highlighted the awkward relationship between BP and the federal government. The government has authority for all major decisions in the spill response, but BP has the technological expertise for the deep-water engineering. BP had planned to proceed with the test Tuesday, but federal scientists called time out, asking for more assurances that the oil company had thought through what might go wrong.

The decision to postpone the test for 24 hours was made Tuesday afternoon, but that decision was not announced until Allen and BP put out news releases late Tuesday -- continuing a pattern in which officials have waited many hours to inform the public of what is happening in the gulf. In late May, for example, officials waited almost a day to reveal that they had suspended the "top-kill" effort to clog the well with heavy drilling mud.

Allen said Wednesday that during the top kill the well pressure never surpassed 6,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. That befuddled engineers, who did not know where the mud, furiously pumped into the blowout preventer from surface ships, was going. They wondered if it was flowing through breaches in the well casing into the geological formation. The other possibility was far more benign: All the mud may have spewed out the top of the well through cracks and openings in the collapsed riser pipe.

"We've never been comfortable with what the 6000 psi meant during the top kill," Allen said.

He has said that, if all goes right, the pressure in the well during the integrity test will rise to about 8,000 or 9,000 pounds per square inch and stay there.

The test is officially slated to last 48 hours. Only at that point, Allen said, will officials decide how to proceed with the Macondo well.

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