GULF OF MEXICO — BP froze activity on two key projects yesterday meant to choke off the flow of oil billowing from its broken well in the Gulf of Mexico after days of moving confidently toward controlling the crisis.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the government didn’t want potentially dangerous pressure tests on a new, tighter cap that has been placed on the well to go ahead until BP answers questions about possible risks.
Gibbs said he did not consider the delay to be “some giant setback,” describing it as “a series of steps … that are being taken in order to ensure that what we’re doing is being done out of an abundance of caution to do no harm.”
The development was a stunning setback after the oil giant finally seemed to be on track following nearly three months of failed attempts to stop the spill, which has sullied beaches from Florida to Texas and decimated the multibillion dollar fishing industry.
A top BP executive said there was no guarantee the company will get approval to go ahead with capping the well, a temporary measure. Chief operating officer Doug Suttles told The Associated Press in an interview that BP is trying to resolve the government’s concerns.
“I don’t know whether we will get that approval or not,” Suttles said. “I hope we do.”
The oil giant and the government said more analysis was needed before testing could proceed on a new temporary well cap — the best hope since April of stopping the geyser. Work on a permanent fix, relief wells that will plug the spill from below with mud and cement, also was halted.
Gibbs said Energy Secretary Steven Chu, U.S. Geological Survey chief Marcia McNutt and other government scientists have asked a series of questions to ensure that the integrity of the blowout preventer and the well itself are preserved.
“We want to conduct structural testing in order to make sure that the well is safe and secure,” Gibbs told reporters at the White House.
Oil continued to spew nearly unimpeded into the water, with no clear timeline on when it would stop. BP shares were down 2.5 percent in afternoon trading in London after recouping some of their oil spill losses earlier this week, when the cap project seemed to be moving ahead.
“We want to move forward with this as soon as we are ready to do it,” said Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president.
BP had zipped through weekend preparations for getting the 75-ton cap in place and undersea robots locked it smoothly into place Monday atop the well, raising hopes the gusher could be checked for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by BP exploded April 20, killing 11 workers.
Wells said that it was the government’s call late Tuesday to re-evaluate plans for testing the new cap, and that plans were on hold for at least 24 hours. Federal officials and the company will re-evaluate the best path forward after that time period.
The run-up to the now-delayed testing process was being closely monitored from Washington. Allen, who came to BP’s U.S. offices in Houston on Tuesday, also met with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and U.S. Geological Survey head Marcia McNutt along with BP and industry representatives. And President Obama has been receiving multiple daily briefings on the work’s progress, his adviser David Axelrod said.
Wells did not commit with certainty to going forward with the testing, which would shut off the leak by closing valves on the cap and watching to see if it could hold the pressure from oil and gas in the well. Wells suggested other oil collection options might be redeployed.
Work on a permanent fix, a relief well that would plug the leak with heavy drilling mud and cement, was halted for up to 48 hours as a precaution because it’s not yet clear what effect the testing of the new cap could have on it.
BP said on Tuesday that it halted work on a second relief well, but that holdup was expected. The company is drilling the second well as a backup in case the first doesn’t work.
The relief well’s timeframe has always been hazy, with company and federal officials giving estimates ranging from the end of July to the middle of August before it can be completed.
Roger N. Anderson, a marine geologist at Columbia University, said he believes BP and government scientists are just being very cautious and he’s not worried.
Freezing work on the relief well may mean scientists are worried that clamping down the cap will push new pressure all the way down to the depths of the broken well, he said.
“So I wouldn’t panic, is the answer. They’re going to be very, very deliberate about this,” Anderson said.
Assuming BP gets the green light to do the cap testing after the extra analysis is finished, engineers need to shut off lines already funneling some oil to ships to see how the cap handles the pressure of the crude coming up from the ground.
Finally, they would shut the openings in the 75-ton metal stack of pipes and valves gradually, one at a time, while watching pressure gauges to see if the cap would hold or if any new leaks erupted. The operation could last anywhere from six to 48 hours, once it gets started.
Scientists will be looking for high pressure readings of 8,000 (3,625 kilograms) to 9,000 pounds (4,080 kilograms) per square inch (6.5 sq. centimeter). Anything lower than 6,000 (2,720 kilogram) might indicate previously unidentified leaks in the well.
As of Wednesday, the 85th day of the disaster, between 92 million (350 million liter) and 182 million gallons (700 million liters) of oil had spewed into the Gulf.