BP's broken well was leaking oil and gas again today for the first time since the company capped it last week, but the Obama administration's spill chief said it was no cause for alarm. The stopper was left in place for now.
Ever since the cap was used to bottle up the oil last week, engineers have been watching underwater cameras and monitoring pressure and seismic readings to see whether the well would hold or spring a new leak, perhaps one that could rupture the seafloor and make the disaster even worse.
Small amounts of oil and gas started coming from the cap late Sunday, but "we do not believe it is consequential at this time," retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said.
Also, seepage from the seafloor was detected over the weekend less than two miles away, but Allen said it probably has nothing to do with the well. Oil and gas are known to ooze naturally from fissures in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
At an afternoon briefing in Washington, Allen said BP could keep the cap closed at least another 24 hours, as long as the company remained alert for leaks.
BP and the government had been at odds over the company's desire to simply leave the cap in place and employ it like a giant cork in a bottle until a relief well being drilled deep underground can be used to plug up the well permanently.
Allen initially said his preference was to pipe oil through the cap to tankers on the surface to reduce the slight chance that the buildup of pressure inside the well would cause a new blowout. That plan would require releasing millions more gallons of oil into the ocean for a few days during the transition - a spectacle BP apparently wants to avoid.
Allen budged a bit, saying unless larger problems develop, he's not inclined to open the cap.
Also on the table: Pumping drilling mud through the top of the cap and into the well bore to stop up the oil flow. The idea is similar to the failed top kill plan that couldn't overcome the pressure of the geyser pushing up.
BP said it could work now because there's less oil to fight against, but it wasn't clear how such a method would affect the cap's stability. Allen said the relief well was still the plan for a permanent fix.
BP and the government are still trying to understand why pressure readings from the well are lower than expected. Allen offered two possible explanations: The reservoir the oil is gushing from is dwindling, or there is an undiscovered leak somewhere down in the well.
"I'm not prepared to say the well is shut in until the relief well is done," which is still several weeks away, Allen said. "There are too many uncertainties."
BP and the Coast Guard learned that lesson the hard way after they initially said no oil was coming from the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig after it exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Even after it became clear there was a leak, the company and its federal overseers drastically underestimated its size for weeks.
Robert Carney, a Louisiana State University expert on biological oceanography, said the seepage is far enough away from the well that it could be occurring naturally.
"You have little bubbles rising up from the bottom frequently; that's the methane gas" he said. "Oil would be a little black dot, more difficult to see. But both escape into the water regularly."
One other possibility: There are around 27,000 abandoned wells in the Gulf. One of them is within two miles of BP's blowout, and there is a second well in the area that is not in production.
While officials gave no indication that the seepage was from another well, they're not checked for leaks, an Associated Press investigation showed this month.
Work on a permanent plug is moving steadily, with crews drilling into the side of the ruptured well from deep underground. By next week, they could start blasting in mud and cement to block off the well for good. Killing the well deep underground works more reliably than bottling it up with a cap.
Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have gushed into the Gulf over the past three months in one of America's worst environment crises.
BP said the cost of dealing with the spill has now reached nearly $4 billion. The company said it has made payments totaling $207 million to settle claims for damages. Almost 116,000 claims have been submitted and more than 67,500 payments have been made.