- Associated Press - Sunday, July 18, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The custom-built cap that finally cut off the oil flowing from BP’s broken well into the Gulf of Mexico held steady Sunday, and the company hopes to leave it that way until crews can kill the leak permanently.

That plan differs from the one the federal government laid out Saturday, in which millions more gallons of oil could be released before the cap is connected to tankers on the surface.

Federal officials wary of making the well unstable have said the oil-capture plan would relieve pressure and may be the safer option.

Both sides downplayed the apparent contradiction. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who will make the final decision, said that the containment plan he described Saturday hadn’t changed and that he and BP executives were on the same page.

“No one associated with this whole activity … wants to see any more oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico,” said Doug Suttles, BP PLC’s chief operating officer. “Right now, we don’t have a target to return the well to flow.”

Scientists still aren’t sure whether the shut-in is causing oil to leak into the bedrock surrounding the well, which could make the seabed unstable. That’s why pumping the oil through nearly a mile of pipes to four ships on the surface and containing it there may be a safer option.

But that would mean oil would have to be released back into the Gulf for three days to release pressure from the well, Mr. Suttles said.

Unimpeded, the well spewed as much as 2.5 million gallons a day, according to the government’s worst-case estimates.

The oil giant hopes instead to keep the oil shut in until its permanent measure is completed, although Mr. Suttles said BP was taking it day by day.

Adm. Allen said more work is needed to better understand why pressure readings from the well cap are lower than expected. There could be two reasons, he said: Either there’s less oil in the well because more has flowed out than previously thought, or oil is leaking out underground.

“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,” Adm. Allen said.

Both Adm. Allen and BP have said they don’t know how long the trial run, initially set to end Saturday, will continue. Adm. Allen has extended it to Sunday afternoon and could extend it again.

Work continued on the permanent fix: two relief wells, one being drilled 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. Then the job of jamming it with mud and cement could take “a number of days through a few weeks.”

The cap, which on Thursday stopped the crude for the first time since the April 20 explosion unleashed the spill, lets BP shut in the oil, which would be important if a hurricane were to hit the Gulf and force ships to leave the area.

It will take months, or possibly years, for the Gulf to recover. But there were signs that people were trying to get life — or at least a small part of it — back to normal.

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