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Gulf oil spill: BP oil cap appears to be working; 48-hour testing period may be extended

July 17, 2010 |  7:37 am

A BP executive says that officials may extend beyond 48 hours the ongoing test to determine whether it is safe to keep a tight seal on its troubled Deepwater Horizon well, adding that he is "encouraged" by the readings thus far.

In a telephone briefing with reporters Saturday morning, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said the pressure inside the well remained in a range that gave him some confidence that the underground pipes haven't been leaking.

"There's no evidence we lack integrity in the well," Wells said. "We're just going to continue on monitoring the pressures."

The well was sealed Thursday afternoon; the pressure testing will determine whether its underground pipes have enough integrity to handle an ongoing seal at the top.

Low pressure readings could indicate the existence of leaks. If they do exist, BP and government officials say that a full seal of the well at the top could force more oil out of the pipes, eventually up to the seabed, creating new leaks, and a much more complicated problem.

Wells said there had always been a possibility that the test would be extended beyond 48 hours, and that an extension may help experts learn more about the well.

The pressure readings inside the well Saturday morning were at 6,745 pounds per square inch and rising slowly. Though relatively good news, that number does not give the clearest answer about what is going on underground. Wells said that a reading of 7,500 psi "would really say to us that we do have integrity under essentially any scenario."

A measurement between 6,000 and 7,500 psi is more of a gray area. On Friday, Wells said the current pressure buildup seemed to indicate that the well hasn't been leaking, but that the underground oil reservoir had released so much oil since the beginning of the gusher in April that its pressure had diminished.

Wells said the federal government would make the final decision about whether to keep the well sealed at the top or to open it again. If it is opened, some oil would again spill into the Gulf of Mexico, and some would be collected by a series of riser pipes and containment ships. 

BP has said that by the end of July it should have new technology and ships in place to be able to collect all of the oil -- up to 60,000 barrels a day -- that had been flowing from the Deepwater Horizon well since late April. Wells said the company may also be able to use the sealing cap affixed earlier this week to choke back some of the oil flow, putting less burden on the containment ships.

-- Richard Fausset in Atlanta

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