- 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.

The public beach at Gulf Shores, Ala., had its busiest day in weeks on Saturday despite oil-stained sand and a dark line of tar balls left by high tide.

Darryl Allen of Fairhope, Ala., and Pat Carrasco of Baton Rouge, La., came to the beach to throw a Frisbee just as they’ve been doing for the past 30 years. With oil on people’s minds more than the weather, Mr. Allen asked what’s become a common question since the well integrity test began: “How’s the pressure? I hope it’s going up,” he said. “You don’t want to be too optimistic after all that’s happened.”

People also were fishing again, off piers and in boats, after most of the recreational waters in Louisiana were reopened late this week. More than a third of federal waters are still closed and off-limits to commercial fishermen.

“I love to fish,” said Brittany Lawson, hanging her line off a pier beside the Grand Isle Bridge. “I love to come out here.”

And even though it has been only days since the oil was turned off, the naked eye could spot improvements on the water. The crude appeared to be dissipating quickly on the surface of the Gulf around the Deepwater Horizon site.

Members of a Coast Guard crew that flew over the wellhead Saturday said far less oil was visible than a day earlier. Only a colorful sheen and a few long streams of rust-colored, weathered oil were apparent in an area covered weeks earlier by huge patches of black crude.

Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf, according to government estimates.

Harry R. Weber reported from Houston.