oil boat1 Gulf Oil Seepage Not From Capped Well, Feds Say

A workboat operates in a heavy oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico July 16, 2010. (AP Photo)

The federal government’s oil spill chief said Tuesday that seepage detected two miles from BP’s oil cap is coming from another well.

There are two wells within two miles of BP’s blowout, one that has been abandoned and another that is not in production.

“It’s actually closer to that facility than it is to the Macondo well,” the one that blew out, retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said at a Tuesday afternoon briefing. “The combination of that and the fact that it’s not uncommon to have seepage around these” abandoned wells is what convinced engineers that BP’s well wasn’t the source of the seepage, he said.

There around 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf, and an Associated Press investigation showed this month that they’re not checked for leaks.

Allen also says five leaks in and around the broken well are more like “drips” and don’t mean the well is unstable. He’s extended testing of the experimental cap by another day, which means the oil will remain shut in.

The mechanical cap has stopped the oil since Thursday. But several leaks had caused mounting concern that the cap was displacing pressure and causing leaks deep underground.

If oil is leaking through bedrock and mud, it could cause instability in the sea floor and make the environmental disaster even worse and harder to fix.

Seepage from the sea floor also was detected over the weekend less than two miles away. Oil and gas are known to ooze naturally from fissures in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, two former Interior Department secretaries told Congress Tuesday that no one in government ever imagined an oil spill of the size and scope unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. And BP said it was planning to sell off minor assets in Pakistan and Vietnam to help pay for the cleanup.

For those whose livelihood depends on clean waters, worries about the cap were tempered by relief that the oil stopped gushing.

“I’m for anything that will stop the oil from coming,” said Capt. Ty Fleming, who runs charter fishing trips in Orange Beach, Ala. said Tuesday. “I guess when you’ve got how many million gallons pouring out before, and now you have less, it’s like comparing a coconut hitting you in the head with a raisin. The raisin would be insignificant.”

BP and the government had been at odds over the company’s desire to simply leave the cap in place and employ it like a giant cork in a bottle until a relief well being drilled deep underground can be used to plug up the well permanently.

Allen initially said his preference was to pipe oil through the cap to tankers on the surface to reduce the slight chance that the buildup of pressure inside the well would cause a new blowout. That plan would require releasing millions more gallons of oil into the ocean for a few days during the transition – a spectacle BP apparently wants to avoid.

On Monday, Allen budged a bit, saying unless larger problems develop, he’s not inclined to open the cap.

Also on the table: Pumping drilling mud through the top of the cap and into the well bore to stop up the oil flow. The idea is similar to the failed top kill plan that couldn’t overcome the pressure of the geyser pushing up.

BP said it could work now because there’s less oil to fight against, but it wasn’t clear how such a method would affect the cap’s stability. Allen said the relief well was still the plan for a permanent fix.

A decision on the so-called “static kill” is expected in the next few days, reports CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella.

BP and the government are still trying to understand why pressure readings from the well are lower than expected. Allen offered two possible explanations: The reservoir the oil is gushing from is dwindling, or there is an undiscovered leak somewhere down in the well.

If it is, the buildup of pressure could make the leak worse, reports Cobiella.

“I would be very, very concerned about anything that is going to occur around the wellhead because the last thing that you want to do is have a failure around the wellhead and it collapse,” Greg McCormack, director of the University of Texas Petroleum Extension Service, told CBS News.

“I’m not prepared to say the well is shut in until the relief well is done,” which is still several weeks away, Allen said. “There are too many uncertainties.”

BP and the Coast Guard learned that lesson the hard way after they initially said no oil was coming from the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig after it exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Even after it became clear there was a leak, the company and its federal overseers drastically underestimated its size for weeks.

Government investigators are trying to determine whether BP missed a leak of hydraulic fluid in a critical safety device that could have prevented the disaster. A drilling supervisor testified Tuesday that he reported the leak to his supervisor weeks before explosion.

Ronald Sepulvado, a BP well site leader, told a panel of government investigators in suburban New Orleans he didn’t know if federal regulators were notified of the leak, as required.

Work on a permanent plug is moving steadily, with crews drilling into the side of the ruptured well from deep underground. By next week, they could start blasting in mud and cement to block off the well for good. Killing the well deep underground works more reliably than bottling it up with a cap.

Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have gushed into the Gulf over the past three months in one of America’s worst environmental crises.

BP PLC said the cost of dealing with the spill has now reached nearly $4 billion. The company said it has made payments totaling $207 million to settle claims for damages. Almost 116,000 claims have been submitted and more than 67,500 payments have been made. BP stock was down slightly Monday.

“I’m hoping that they’ll get everything cleanup with the next one to two years. Let’s things will get back to normal,” said Terry Lash, manager of Doc’s Seafood Shack & Oyster Bar in Orange Beach, Ala. “We’re hurting really bad, but there are other restaurants that are worst than we are.”

© MMX, CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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