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Gulf oil spill: Well remains sealed, test extended by 24 hours

July 17, 2010 |  3:34 pm

The federal oil-spill response chief Saturday extended by 24 hours a crucial test to measure the sturdiness of BP's troubled gulf oil well and to determine whether it is safe to keep a tight seal on top of it.

In a news release, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the 48 hours of testing to that point had provided "valuable information, which will inform the procedure to kill the well." Experts, he said, wanted to continue monitoring the results a little longer.

But Allen's statement did not answer a key question: Will the government and BP decide to keep the well sealed in at the top until crews can plug it up far underground using a relief well? The relief well seal, which Allen called "the ultimate step in stopping the BP oil leak for good," may not happen until mid-August.

Using a massive custom-made cap, BP was able to fully seal the well Thursday, after 85 straight days of gushing crude had created one of the nation's worst environmental disasters. But federal officials are concerned that there may be cracks in the well's underground pipes -- and that a full seal might exacerbate the flow of oil out of those cracks, creating even more leaks on the the ocean floor.

Federal officials at the spill response media center in New Orleans could not clarify Allen's comments, and a BP spokesman declined to comment on them. In a news conference earlier in the day, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said there was "no evidence" so far that the well was damaged or leaking.

There were some hints about potential strategies going forward. Allen's five-paragraph statement noted that the test had given officials a "better understanding of options for temporary shut-in during a hurricane." A "shut-in" refers to a full seal of the leaking well.    

That seemed to indicate that experts may be considering taking up as much oil as they can using a series of pipes and containment ships, and sealing the well off only when storms force the ships to move to safe harbor. The troubled Gulf of Mexico well, which, according to government estimates, had been leaking up to 60,000 barrels of oil a day until the seal, is about 50 miles off Louisiana; historically, the peak of hurricane season lasts from August to October.

--Richard Fausset in Atlanta

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