Video: Cautious optimism in Gulf as cap holds

  1. Transcript of: Cautious optimism in Gulf as cap holds

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: It is day 90 and the news seems to be more promising by the hour from the Gulf of Mexico where BP now hopes to keep a tight lid on the damaged oil well until they get the relief well finished next month. For a third full day, the customized cap attached atop the well on Thursday held firm and appeared to be preventing new oil from flowing into the gulf. But here's the reality check: Officials are still trying to understand all the data they're getting, and they're not using the word "success" as caution and patience continue to guide their every move during this very critical phase. NBC 's Michelle Kosinski leads our coverage tonight from Venice , Louisiana . Michelle , good evening.

    MICHELLE KOSINSKI reporting: Good evening, Lester . You're right, the good news is that cap remains in place; there doesn't seem to be any oil leaking out. However, there are new concerns tonight that gas may be escaping, and if so, that might not bode well for the integrity of that structure that both BP and the government have been so closely watching. Steady and holding. BP announces that pressure on that cap is right where they want it to be, has been building only very slowly. And that's almost a best-case scenario, an indication there's no major leak, that the structures are sound and that the pressure is leveling off quite a bit lower than expected, putting less strain on the whole thing.

    Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (BP): With these sort of results, we'll continue to leave the well shut in. So at this point, it is encouraging.

    KOSINSKI: And that means potentially no more oil will flow into gulf waters before this well is finally permanently killed. But remember this is still considered a test period and the government warns today, "Work must continue to better understand the lower than expected pressure readings. This work centers on two plausible scenarios, depletion of oil from the reservoir and potential leakage caused by damage."

    KOSINSKI: Also, some experts worry about the pressure still being too much, that keeping the cap on will only raise the risk of mechanical failure.

    Mr. BOB CAVNER (Former Oil Industry Executive): I'm worried about it holding for a long period of time. I would be more comfortable if they would open it up and at least flow some to the surface to keep the pressure in the well down.

    KOSINSKI: Still, the news is a relief here. Frelich Seafood , 35 years running, is barely surviving massive economic pressures.

    Unidentified Woman: We opened, but we may as well have been closed.

    KOSINSKI: Learning that this is looking more and more like an end to the crisis is almost indescribable.

    Woman: You wouldn't imagine. It was just like somebody's dying and they came back to life.

    KOSINSKI: Wow.

    Woman: You know, like that's how you feel it because you were just -- every day you were dying a little bit when you look at the TV and watched the oil come out the -- all over in the water and all the devastation. And it's just very heartbreaking.

    KOSINSKI: Now, more room for optimism. Hopes dashed before are ready to hold on to that cap. Michelle Kosinski , NBC News, Venice, Louisiana.

By
updated 7/19/2010 12:54:10 AM ET 2010-07-19T04:54:10

BP and the Obama administration offered significantly differing views Sunday on whether the capped Gulf of Mexico oil well will have to be reopened, a contradiction that may be an effort by the oil giant to avoid blame if crude starts spewing again.

Pilloried for nearly three months as it tried repeatedly to stop the leak, BP PLC capped the nearly mile-deep well Thursday and wants to keep it that way. The government's plan, however, is to eventually pipe oil to the surface, which would ease pressure on the fragile well but would require up to three more days of oil spilling into the Gulf.

"No one associated with this whole activity ... wants to see any more oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico," Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, said Sunday. "Right now we don't have a target to return the well to flow."

But retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's spill response chief, said a seep had been detected a distance from busted oil well, and he demanded that BP provide results of further testing of the seabed Sunday night. Allen didn't say what was coming from the seep.

Pressure concerns
The concern all along — since pressure readings on the cap weren't as high as expected — was a leak elsewhere in the wellbore, meaning the cap may have to be reopened to prevent the environmental disaster from becoming even worse and harder to fix.

"When seeps are detected, you are directed to marshal resources, quickly investigate, and report findings to the government in no more than four hours. I direct you to provide me a written procedure for opening the choke valve as quickly as possible without damaging the well should hydrocarbon seepage near the well head be confirmed," Allen said in a letter to BP Managing Director Bob Dudley.

An administration official familiar with the spill oversight told The Associated Press that the seep and possible methane were found near well. The official spoke on condition of anonymity Sunday because an announcement about the next steps had not been made yet. The official also would not clarify what is seeping near the well.

When asked about the situation earlier Sunday before the letter was released, BP spokesman Mark Salt would only say that "we continue to work very closely with all government scientists on this."

Allen insisted Sunday that "nothing has changed" since Saturday, when he said oil would eventually be piped to surface ships. The government is overseeing BP's work to stop the leak, which ultimately is to be plugged using a relief well.

Allen decided to extend testing of the cap that had been scheduled to end Sunday, the official who spoke on condition of anonymity said. That means the oil will stay in the well for now as scientists continue run tests and monitor pressure readings. The official didn't say how long that would take.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security referred questions to a statement issued by Allen; neither he nor BP officials could explain the apparent contradiction in plans.

Suttles' comments carved out an important piece of turf for BP: If Allen sticks with the containment plan and oil again pours forth into the Gulf, even briefly, it will be the government's doing, not BP's.

BP wants to keep cap on
The company very much wants to avoid a repeat of the live underwater video that showed millions of gallons of oil spewing from the blown well for weeks.

"I can see why they're pushing for keeping the cap on and shut in until the relief well is in place," said Daniel Keeney, president of a Dallas-based public relations firm.

The government wants to eliminate any chance of making matters worse, while BP is loath to lose the momentum it gained the moment it finally halted the leak, Keeney said.

"They want to project being on the same team, but they have different end results that benefit each," he said.

Oil would have to be released under Allen's plan, which would ease concerns that the capped reservoir might force its way out through another route. Those concerns stem from pressure readings in the cap that have been lower than expected.

Scientists still aren't sure whether the pressure readings mean a leak elsewhere in the well bore, possibly deep down in bedrock, which could make the seabed unstable. Oil would be have to be released into the water to relieve pressure and allow crews to hook up the ships, BP and Allen have said.

So far, there have been no signs of a leak.

"We're not seeing any problems at this point with the shut-in," Suttles said at a Sunday morning briefing.

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Allen said later Sunday that scientists and engineers would continue to evaluate and monitor the cap through acoustic, sonar and seismic readings.

They're looking to determine whether low pressure readings mean that more oil than expected poured into the Gulf of Mexico since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 people and touching off one of America's worst environment crises.

"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," Allen said in a news release.

"Ultimately, we must ensure no irreversible damage is done which could cause uncontrolled leakage from numerous points on the sea floor."

Deadline passed
Both Allen and BP have said they don't know how long the trial run will continue. It was set to end Sunday afternoon, but the deadline — an extension from the original Saturday cutoff — came and went with no word on what's next.

After little activity Sunday, robots near the well cap came to life around the time of the cutoff. It wasn't clear what they were doing, but bubbles started swirling around as their robotic arms poked at the mechanical cap.

To plug the busted well, 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. The subsequent job of jamming the well with mud and cement could take days or a few weeks.

It will take months, or possibly years for the Gulf to recover, though cleanup efforts continued and improvements in the water could be seen in the days since the oil stopped flowing. Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf, according to government estimates.

The spill has prevented many commercial fishermen from their jobs, though some are at work with the cleanup. Some boat captains were surprised and angry to learn that the money they make from cleanup work will be deducted from the funds they would otherwise receive from a $20 billion compensation fund set up by BP.

The fund's administrator, Kenneth Feinberg, told The Associated Press on Sunday that if BP pays fishermen wages to help skim oil and perform other cleanup work, those wages will be subtracted from the amount they get from the fund.

Longtime charter boat captain Mike Salley said he didn't realize BP planned to deduct those earnings, and he doubted many other captains knew, either.

"I'll keep running my boat," he said Sunday on a dock in Orange Beach, Ala., before heading back into the Gulf to resupply other boats with boom to corral the oil. "What else can I do?"

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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