Oil cap holds steady as BP works on permanent plug
NEW ORLEANS - The custom-built cap that finally cut off the oil flowing from BP's broken well held steady Sunday, and the company hopes to leave it that way until crews can permanently kill the leak. That differs from the plan the federal government laid out a day earlier, in which millions more gallons of oil could be released before the cap is connected to tankers at the surface and oil is sent to be collected through a mile of pipes. Federal officials wary of making the well unstable have said that plan would relieve pressure on the cap and may be the safer option, but it would mean three days of oil flowing into the Gulf before the collection begins. Both sides downplayed the apparent contradiction in plans. Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who will make the final decision, said the containment plan he described Saturday hadn't changed, and that he and BP executives were on the same page."No one associated with this whole activity ... wants to see any more oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico," said Doug Suttles, BP PLC's chief operating officer. "Right now we don't have a target to return the well to flow." Allen said more work is needed to better understand why pressure readings from the well cap are lower than expected. There could be two reasons, he said: either there's less oil in the well because more has flowed out than previously thought, or oil is leaking out underground. "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. Both Allen and BP have said they don't know how long the trial run - initially set to end Saturday - will continue. Allen has extended it to Sunday afternoon, and could extend it again. Work continued on the permanent fix: two relief wells, one being drilled 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. Then the job of jamming the busted well with mud and cement could take "a number of days through a few weeks." Some boat captains were surprised and angry to learn that their work helping with the cleanup will mean less money they're eligible to claim from the $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?" It will take months, or possibly years for the Gulf to recover. But there were signs that people were trying to get life - or at least a small part of it - back to normal. The public beach at Gulf Shores, Ala., had its busiest day in weeks on Saturday despite oil-stained sand and a dark line of tar balls left by high tide. Darryl Allen of Fairhope, Ala., and Pat Carrasco of Baton Rouge, La., came to the beach to throw a Frisbee just like they've been doing for the past 30 years. With oil on people's minds more than the weather, Allen asked what's become a common question since the well integrity test began: "How's the pressure? I hope it's going up," he said. "You don't want to be too optimistic after all that's happened." People also were fishing again, off piers and in boats, after most of the recreational waters in Louisiana were reopened late this week. More than a third of federal waters are still closed and off-limits to commercial fishermen. "I love to fish," said Brittany Lawson, hanging her line off a pier beside the Grand Isle Bridge. "I love to come out here." And even though it has been only days since the oil was turned off, the naked eye could spot improvements on the water. The crude appeared to be dissipating quickly on the surface of the Gulf around the Deepwater Horizon site. Members of a Coast Guard crew that flew over the wellhead Saturday said far less oil was visible than a day earlier. Only a colorful sheen and a few long streams of rust-colored, weathered oil were apparent in an area covered weeks earlier by huge patches of black crude. Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf, according to government estimates.