After a 24 hour delay, BP (BP) is proceeding with an all important "integrity test" that will determine whether its damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico can be safely capped and closed prior to the completion of relief wells that are still being drilled.

National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen said the testing, which seeks to determine if the well is structurally sound enough to extract oil and gas safely, would begin sometime Wednesday evening. The decision to resume testing was made after several scientists and experts expressed concern about well pressure levels. Their concerns prompted Allen to suspend the test for 24 hours to obtain more information from BP about the structural integrity of the well.

Under Pressure

"We asked for more information about assumptions that could lead to irreversible leakage outside the well from external experts and we thought about what kind of thresholds we would need to look at as we ran the integrity test," Allen said.

When tests resume, Allen said valves on the well's capping stack would be closed and pressure readings would be taken in 6 hour intervals for a maximum of 48 hours. Those pressure readings will be carefully evaluated to determine if pressure should be increased or testing aborted.

Pressure must build to between 8,000 and 9,000 psi, and it must be maintained at that level for 48 hours to demonstrate the well is structurally sound. If pressure readings remain below those levels, it may indicate that oil is leaking from other locations in the well bore, pipes or casing. In that scenario, capping the well might cause an explosion or other major ruptures that would make the current situation in the Gulf even worse.

Preparing Plan B (and C)

"We're taking due care and maybe an overabundance of caution to make sure that we don't do any undue harm," said Allen.

Allen said the integrity tests would be abandoned after three hours if pressure levels do not build toward the 8,000 to 9,000 psi level. If the tests are stopped, BP would then concentrate on ramping up production from the well, and modify its strategy for using the relief wells to finally stop the oil spill. Allen said the fourth containment platform that will allow the company to siphon oil from the well was established today, giving the company the capacity to extract 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of oil a day.

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