NEW ORLEANS — 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 to stop the leak, BP capped the nearly mile-deep well Thursday and wants to keep it that way. The government's plan is to 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. "Right now we don't have a target to return the well to flow."
But a seep had been detected a distance from the busted oil well, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's spill response chief. 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.
The government is overseeing BP's work to stop the leak, which ultimately is to be plugged using a relief well.
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.
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.
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 wellbore, 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.
Allen said 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.
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.
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 doing 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.