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.
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.
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."
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?"