NEW ORLEANS — Scientists are concerned about a seep near BP's busted oil well, a federal official said Sunday.
Methane might be escaping through cracks in the seafloor, the source said, and that could be a sign of leaks in the well that's been capped off for three days as part of a test of its integrity.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because an announcement about the next steps had not been made yet. Testing had been extended until 4 p.m. ET Sunday, but that came and went without any word on whether it would continue even longer.
The official is familiar with the spill oversight, but would not clarify what is seeping near the well. The official says BP is not complying with the government's demand for more monitoring.
Later Sunday, National Incident Commander Thad Allen directed BP to submit a plan for reopening its capped Macondo well to flow into the ocean.
"I direct you to provide me with a written procedure for opening the choke valve as quickly as possible ... should hydrocarbon seepage near the well head be confirmed," Allen wrote in a letter to BP chief managing director Bob Dudley.
If Allen doesn't get the response he wants, the testing could stop, the official said.
The information follows comments earlier Sunday by BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles, who said officials were monitoring "a few bubbles" around the well.
Suttles also made a statement that appeared at odds with the federal government over what the next steps will be.
He appeared to lean towards keeping the well capped, assuming the well integrity test is declared a success, until a relief well is drilled and the well plugged with cement.
But Allen has been talking up the option of removing the cap, regardless of what the test shows, and reverting back to the siphoning system that's been bolstered by new capacity that should allow for the entire flow to be captured.
A leading oil industry voice, meanwhile, raised another scenario on NBC's "TODAY" show Sunday: keep producing the well and use the funds to restore the Gulf.
For BP, Suttles told reporters Sunday that "no one associated with this whole activity ... wants to see any more oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
He said removing the cap "remains a possibility" but that "right now we don't have a target to return the well to flow."
Allen outlined a different plan on Saturday, saying that after the test was complete, the well would once again be hooked up through nearly a mile of pipes stretching to ships on the surface that will collect the oil.
But that would mean oil would have to be released back into the Gulf for three days to release pressure from the well, Suttles said. The oil giant hopes to instead keep the oil shut in until its permanent measure is completed, although Suttles said BP was taking it day by day.
It wasn't immediately clear if the plan had changed, or if BP and the government disagreed about the next move. Allen will make the ultimate decision.
Both Allen and BP have said they don't know how long the trial run — initially set to end Saturday — will continue.
Allen has extended it to Sunday afternoon, and could extend it again.
In a statement issued Sunday at midday, Allen said that "the ongoing well integrity test will continue until 4 p.m. EST today, with the potential for additional extensions in 24-hour increments."
Tap well to restore Gulf?
The produce-the-well strategy was voiced by former Shell Oil President John Hofmeister, who told "TODAY" he fears that the casing at the base of the well might be too weak to support the ultimate goal of plugging the well with cement.
"Do we have enough casing to hold cement to hold oil in the reservoir," he asked.
"We have a flow, why don't we use that flow," he added. "Let's capture all of the oil if we can. In other words, produce the well. And if this well is damaged, drill another well to be a production well ... the funds could be used to restore the Gulf Coast."
Unimpeded, the well spewed as much as 2.5 million gallons a day, according to the government's worst-case estimates. It's possible the oil has been depleted, and that's why pressure readings from the cap have been lower than anticipated, BP has said.
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Scientists still aren't sure whether the cap is causing oil to leak into the bedrock surrounding the well, which could make the seabed unstable. That's why pumping the oil up to four ships on the surface and containing it there may be a safer option.
But to do that, millions of gallons of oil could spew into the water when the cap is initially reopened, an image both BP and the federal government would like to avoid.
BP is drilling two relief wells, one of them 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.
Pressure in the well cap continues to rise, and scientists are still monitoring for any signs of a leak, but the news still seems to be good, Suttles said. "We're not seeing any problems at this point with the shut-in," Suttles said.
Some steps towards normal
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 like they've been doing for the past 30 years. With oil on people's minds more than the weather, 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.
As for the lower pressure readings reported on Saturday, the most likely reason is more oil has bled out than estimated, experts say. Last week, when an old cap was removed allowing oil to flow unimpeded into the water, the spew wasn't as violent as it had been.
"Depletion is actually pretty normal," said Don Van Nieuwenhuise, Director of Professional Geoscience Programs at the University of Houston. "At first it flowed very powerfully, and when you're producing too much too fast for too long, it takes longer to pull the oil."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.