BP freezes activity on efforts to control oil spill

Two key projects in the Gulf of Mexico are halted, with officials saying more analysis is needed just days after seeming on track to cap the damaged well.

This still image from a live BP video feed shows oil gushing from a leaking BP oil well-pipe after a new sealing cap was installed July 14, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.  BP was poised Wednesday to carry out a make-or-break test on the integrity of the leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well, following a delay imposed by US authorities. The former Coast Guard chief leading the US response to the disaster took the decision to put the test off until Wednesday at the earliest after meeting Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel-winning physicist, and other experts. BP is poised to test whether a 75-tonne cap can seal the devestating leak without threatening the structural integrity of the well. But US officials fear that if the pressure caused by shutting off the flow of oil increases too quickly, it could send oil shooting up from a new leak on the sea floor -- further aggravating the worst oil spill in US history.   AFP PHOTO / BP / HANDOUT   == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN ==

NEW ORLEANS // BP stopped two key projects today that were meant to prevent the flow of oil billowing from its broken well in the Gulf of Mexico after days of moving confidently towards controlling the crisis. 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 devastated beaches from Florida to Texas and decimated the multibillion-dollar fishing industry.

BP and the US government said more analysis was needed before testing could proceed on a new temporary well cap - the best hope since April of stopping the flow. Work on a permanent fix, relief wells that will plug the spill from below with mud and cement were also halted. Oil continued to spew nearly unimpeded into the water, with no clear timeline on when it would stop. BP shares were down 2.5 per cent 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 quickly progressed through weekend preparations for getting the 75-ton cap in place and undersea robotic machinary locked it smoothly into place Monday atop the well, raising hopes the gushing well could be checked for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by BP exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.

Mr Wells said that it was the US government's call late last night 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 reassess 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 US offices in Houston on Tuesday, also met with the Energy Secretary Steven Chu and the US Geological Survey head Marcia McNutt along with BP and industry representatives. President Barack Obama has been receiving multiple daily briefings on the work's progress, his adviser David Axelrod said.

Mr 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. Mr 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 is not clear what effect the testing of the new cap could have.

BP said on Tuesday that it halted work on a second relief well, but that hold-up was expected. The company is drilling the second well as a back-up in case the first does not work. The relief well's time-frame has always been ambiguous, 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 US government scientists are just being very cautious and he is 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," Mr Anderson said. Assuming BP get the green light for cap testing after the extra analysis is finished, engineers need to shut off lines already funnelling 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 erupt. The operation could last anywhere from six to 48 hours, once it gets started. Scientists will be looking for high pressure readings of 3,625kg to 4,080kg per 6.5 square centimetre. Anything lower than 2,720kg might indicate previously unidentified leaks in the well.

As of today, the 85th day of the disaster, between 92 million and 182m gallons of oil had spewed into the Gulf. * AP