July 19, 2010 -- The stacking cap holding back oil from BP's broken well has sprung small leaks, but the government decided to allow the integrity test to continue for another 24 hours, keeping the gusher contained.
The torrent of oil has now been shut down for a fourth straight day, but many are concerned about the steady flow of bubbles signaling several leaks in the giant, 150,000-pound device cap.
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"What we're looking for is methane gas, which is a precursor of oil rising from the water," National Incident Cmdr. Adm. Thad Allen said today.
Concerned government scientists continue to monitor the well, and deep sea robots are now taking samples and scanning the ocean floor for seismic activity. They're even monitoring the temperature around the well. It's currently a frigid 40 degrees Fahrenheit, even after being warmed by leaking oil, which gushes up at 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
One of the leaks that has been observed seems to be a natural seepage, located about two miles away from the well on the sea bed.
Leaks Common on Sea Floor, Expert Says
"The Gulf is loaded with seeps of oil and gas, and that's one of the challenges that everyone is facing here," said Chris D'Elia,Professor and Dean of the School of Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University. "What is natural and what is not?"
Other tiny leaks are found on the new stacking cap itself, but they're still far too minor to warrant unsealing the cap and unleashing the geyser of oil once again.
Still, the government made clear over the weekend that leaks are a major concern.
When BP downplayed the threat of leaks, Adm. Allen penned a blistering letter demanding more and faster information, including whether BP intends to keep the well shut.
Americans Still Ask, 'Who's in Charge?'
Adm. Allen's letter taps into a sore point for the Obama Administration, which is still struggling to manage the public's perception. One of the most frequent searches on the web site Google News is, "Who's in charge?"
Critics maintain that the government has too little say and too few resources.
"The government is reliant on BP," said Ian MacDonald, an oceanographer with Florida State University. "BP provides all the remote operated submersibles, the ROV's. The government, if it chose to, could charter an ROV and have their own source of information and their own ability to act in the situation."
But 91 days into this disaster, the fact remains that at least for now, the blown out well has been capped. Oil is no longer flowing, and ships that were frantically burning off oil and gas at the spill site are now suddenly quiet.
Maps Show Slick Shrinking
Maps of the oil slick show that in the last few days, it has shrunk considerably, following months of relentless growth. In mid-June the slick was the size of Kansas, but today it's about the size of Tennessee.
"We're very optimistic," Billy Nungesser (R), president of Plaquemines Parish, told Fox News on Sunday. "We see light at the end of the tunnel. It's a very long tunnel, but today we're making progress."
Officials can only be grateful that the slick has started to shrink, but it's hardly due to efforts to clean it up. The more than 400 skimmers deployed to fight the spill have had very little impact, catching about 80,000 barrels of the estimated 5 million that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Still, though, skimmers remain the best line of defense for the fragile coastline, with oil still headed ashore.
Allen: Still a Lot of Work to Be Done
"We still have a lot of work ahead of us," Adm. Allen acknowledged today. "And we still have a heck of a lot of oil out in the Gulf of Mexico."
While oil has hit beaches and marshes in four states, there is now no sign of oil along the Florida panhandle. Scientists also say that the very small amount of oil in Lake Pontchartrain, the tidal bay north of New Orleans, has dispersed and disappeared.
Loop Current No Longer a Threat
Then, there's the loop current that threatened to catch and carry the oil through the Florida Keys, up the coast to Miami and beyond. Thankfully, it hasn't happened. The current split into two, with the northern portion swirling endlessly in the Gulf, and the southern portion flowing over 100 miles from the spill zone.
It's "a current that's almost independent of the rest of the water around it, and it's tough to get that oil into it," said Joe Bastardi, a meteorologist for AccuWeather.
Still, none of the good news means that the Gulf has dodged the proverbial bullet of an environmental disaster. Great unknowns lurk below the surface.
"We really won't know [the environmental impact] for several years," said Dr. John Lopez, a coastal scientist with the Lake Pontchartrain Foundation. "It would probably take a minimum of three years for various species to grow to a size where maybe they would be harvested and begin to recognize trends that they've been impacted."
Even though the flow has stopped, it remains a disaster on a scale never seen before.