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Small leaks spring at BP oil well; cap to stay in place for now

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Oil and gas are leaking from the cap on BP's ruptured oil well but the cork will stay in place for now, the federal government's point man Thad Allen said Monday.

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By Steven Mufson and David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New problems arose in the struggle to contain the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as bubbles and seepage appeared in four areas around the damaged BP well, but Obama administration and company officials agreed to keep the new well cap closed for at least 24 more hours as they weigh the gravity of the developments.

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Meanwhile, at a hearing in Louisiana, attorneys for crew members of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig did battle with one another and members of a government panel investigating the April 20 explosion while revealing new details about fateful choices made hours before the blowout.

In Washington, the Interior Department moved to defuse tensions with shallow-water drilling firms and Gulf Coast lawmakers over how to speed up the permit process.

BP said that one of the seepage areas, less than two miles from the Macondo well, is a natural leak not linked to the well. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen, the national incident commander, said concerns are focused on other "anomalies" -- some seepage within several hundred yards of the well and bubbles appearing near the original blowout preventer on the sea floor.

In addition, video provided by BP showed drops of oil and gas leaking from a piece of the new containment cap just below three rams designed to cut off the flow from the well. The leak has caused the formation of some hydrates -- slushlike crystals of natural gas and water that torpedoed earlier containment efforts. But, Allen said, "we do not believe this is consequential at this time."

Allen and, in another briefing, BP senior executive Kent Wells said the company might make a second attempt to kill the well by shooting drilling mud into the blowout preventer. An earlier attempt was aborted, but Wells said stopping the flow even temporarily would make killing the well easier.

Consequences

The latest events added to tension that had begun to dissipate over the weekend as the new containment cap appeared to be holding fast without causing problems. And the developments highlighted the unappealing tradeoffs associated with every decision carried out a mile below the sea surface.

Allen said that the four-day-old effort to close the well had complicated the prospects of containing the spill by channeling oil through four lines to surface ships. He said that if the new cap must be opened, it would take several days to make sure sand would not clog the lines, to finish building flexible riser pipes to the surface and to hook up surface ships designed to suck oil from the cap. During that time, oil and gas would flow into the gulf.

But with the cap closed, the risk of broader damage to the well itself and surrounding geological structures looms large. If the well is so damaged that oil and gas is leaking throughout, the hydrocarbons could seep into surrounding rock formations high above the reservoir and then into the sea. Or they could come out the top of the well. Vessels using seismic equipment were scouring the area for evidence of such seepage, but their presence kept other ships from getting close enough to finish building the infrastructure that would be needed if the cap were opened.

Meanwhile, pressure in the well continued to rise Monday, albeit slowly, reaching 6,811 pounds per square inch, Allen said in the late afternoon. He said the pressure was rising about one pound per hour.

This, too, has triggered debate among BP and U.S. officials, who had expected the pressure to hit 8,000 psi and who thought that lower pressure readings would be a sign that oil and gas was leaking into rock formations through damaged well equipment. But because of the steady increases in pressure, BP and government scientists are wondering whether so much oil and gas had been spilled already that the pressure in the partly depleted reservoir has been reduced.

The fight to control the well was just one piece of the picture Monday.


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