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Environment

Feds Detect an Oil Seep, Say BP's Cap May Not Be Working

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If three months of waiting for BP to fix its oil leak have taught us anything, it's not to get too optimistic about potential fixes. On Thursday, BP installed a cap that appeared to cut off the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, but yesterday the federal government officials overseeing the leak response said (pdf) that there appear to be hydrocarbons leaking from the seafloor near the well, and possibly methane detected above the well. The upshot is that BP has until tomorrow (Tuesday) to investigate this possible leak. If it is there, the government could force BP to reopen the cap and resume pumping oil up to tankers on the surface.

The discovery of a seep and the unspecified anomalies suggest that the well could be damaged and that it may have to be reopened soon to avoid making the situation worse [The New York Times].

BP says it soon will have the capacity to capture more than 60,000 barrels of oil per day, so it's prepared for action if the government asks it to restart pumping oil. The company, however, isn't on the same page as its government overseers about the cap's performance:

On Sunday, [Chief Operating Officer Doug] Suttles said that no leaks had been detected and that pressure had built to 6,778 pounds per square inch. That was mostly good, he said, although officials had initially expected the well's pressure to climb higher, to 8,000 or 9,000 pounds per square inch. If nothing changed, Suttles said, the company hoped to make its "test" of the closed cap open-ended. He said that if the company reopened the well to connect it with ships on the surface, that would cause the well to leak into the gulf for as many as three days [Washington Post].

Besides the leak-or-no-leak discussion, there's a telling bit of political posturing going on behind the scenes. Throughout BP's three months of futility at trying to stop the main leak, we've covered the difficulty in getting an accurate measure

of the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf. First it was 1,000 barrels per day, then 5,000, and then scientists who finally got access to video footage guessed figures in the tens of thousands. At present, the official estimate is between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels. But:

If the well is never reopened and connected to ships on the surface, it could complicate the U.S. government's efforts to calculate the "flow rate" -- the speed at which the oil was leaking. That would be vital to determining BP's liability for the spill [Washington Post].

We're also getting close to August, when BP says its relief wells—the proposed final solution to the leak—will intercept their target. We hope. Related Content: 80beats: Photos from the Gulf's Great Sea Turtle Relocation

80beats: BP's Cap Has Stopped the Oil Leak—For Now

80beats: One Cap Off, One Cap On: BP Tries Another Plan To Catch Leaking Oil

80beats: Next from X Prize: An Award for Cleaning up BP’s Oil Spill?

Image: NASA

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