BP is preparing a new strategy to seal its busted Gulf of Mexico well which, if successful, could permanently shut down the flow of oil earlier than planned.
On Monday afternoon, BP floated its plan of a "static kill." Kent Wells, a BP senior vice-president, told reporters the idea is in its "infancy" but said a decision whether to try it would be made in the next couple days.
The idea emerged after several days of heated debate about what to do with the well following the successful installation of a containment cap last week. The cap fully cut off the flow of oil into the Gulf for the first time since the April 20 explosion that started the gigantic spill.
BP wants to keep the cap closed, to make sure ugly images of oil spewing in the Gulf don't suddenly reappear on television. But the United States government, having watched so many strategies fail, has been worried that keeping the well capped could lead to a much worse problem, possibly a major rupture in the well.
Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. national incident commander, told reporters on Monday it is "very premature" to declare the cap would remain closed. The original idea was to reopen the cap and connect it with oil collection vessels at the surface - but the plan would also involve some oil spilling into the Gulf.
Still, as of late Monday, the collection vessel plan did not appear to be the priority.
BP's new idea of a static kill would involve pumping heavy mud into the well bore, to choke off the oil. A similar technique, called a top kill, was attempted in May but failed. The top kill could not overcome the force of oil flowing out of the well. But now that the cap is on, and holding, the forces involved are weaker and a static kill might work.
"The static kill does give us a new option," Mr. Wells said. "It's encouraging at this point but there's a couple days of work before we'd be in a position to make a decision."
The move, if it is tried and is successful, would effectively do the job of the close-to-ready relief well, which is now about a metre away from the original well. However, it will take until at least early August, and possibly mid-August, until the relief well is finished. Mr. Wells said the relief well remains "the ultimate solution."
Debate between BP and the U.S. government about how to handle the situation has been vigorous since the cap was installed.
Signs of trouble emerged on the weekend but all indications on Monday suggested the cap is working and that the original well is intact and solid, BP and the government said. There had been fears of a seep of natural gas about three kilometres from the well but it was determined to be unrelated to the BP operation.
A small amount of oil and gas started leaking from the containment cap on Sunday night but Adm. Allen said on Monday it was not "consequential."
BP put a positive spin on the weekend discord. The exchanges included a terse letter from Adm. Allen to the company on Sunday that demanded BP react more quickly if and when seeps are detected and monitor the situation more vigorously.
"We have very good debates," Mr. Wells said on Monday. "It's what you'd expect when you bring a lot of scientists and engineers together," Mr. Wells told reporters.
The cost to take on the spill - from the cap on the well to cleanup - are escalating quickly.
In just the past week, BP spent nearly $500-million (U.S.), the company said on Monday. The total bill is now $3.95-billion.
The scale of the sprawling operation is massive. More than 40,000 people are working on the oil spill, the U.S. government said on Monday, backed by 5,640 vessels on waters of the Gulf and 116 aircraft flying above.
The containment cap, which began as a two-day test, will stayed closed at least through Tuesday afternoon. Adm. Allen is authorizing BP to keep the cap closed in 24-hour increments.
In a statement Monday morning, Adm. Allen said BP can only keep the cap closed if the company meets its "obligations to rigorously monitor for any signs that this test could worsen the overall situation. At any moment, we have the ability to return to the safe containment of the oil on the surface until the time the relief well is completed and the well is permanently killed."