NEW ORLEANS – BP's broken oil well is not dead yet.
The government's point man on the crisis said Friday that the blown-out well is not securely plugged to his satisfaction and that the drilling of the relief well — long regarded as the only way to ensure that the hole at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico never leaks oil again — must go forward.
"The relief well will be finished," said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. "We will kill the well."
Work on the relief well was suspended earlier this week because of bad weather. Allen did not say when it would resume, but when the order comes, it could take four days to get the operation up and running again.
From there, it could be only a matter of days before the "bottom kill" is done and the blown-out well that wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast economy and environment is no longer a threat.
Last week, BP plugged up the ruptured oil well from the top with mud and cement, and for a while, it appeared that the relief well that BP has been drilling 2½ miles under the sea all summer long in an effort to seal up the leak from the bottom might not be necessary after all. But Allen dashed those hopes after scientists conducted pressure tests on Thursday.
Scientists had hoped that the cement pumped in from the top had plugged the gap between the well's inner pipe and its outer casing. The pressure tests showed some cement was in that gap, but officials don't know enough about what's there — or how much of it — to trust that there is a permanent seal, said Allen, who has repeatedly insisted on an "overabundance of caution" when it comes to plugging the well.
The well spilled an estimated 206 million gallons of crude into the sea before BP finally put a cap on it July 15. But that was always regarded as a temporary fix until the relief well and the bottom kill could be completed.
Bob Bea, a petroleum engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that given the results of the pressure tests, proceeding with the relief well makes sense.
"Everything we know at this time says we need to continue the work with the relief wells," he said. "We don't know the details of how they plugged the well from the top. We don't know the volume of material they put in the well bore, and without that we can't tell how close to the bottom of the well they got."
Drilling of the relief well began in early May, and the tunnel is now just 30 to 50 feet from the blown-out well. To intercept the well, the drillers must hit a target about the size of a dinner plate. Once they punch through, heavy drilling mud and cement will be injected into the bedrock.
Allen said scientists from BP and the government are working to ensure the bottom kill does not damage the cap and make the disaster worse. New equipment to ease the pressure inside the well might have to be installed, which would "significantly affect the timeline" for the final fix, Allen said, though he did not specify how much.
Officials from BP and the federal government have been touting the bottom kill as the final fix for weeks, and local officials said they were glad to hear it will go forward.
"If it's a nearly redundant safety measure, that makes sense to us," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who attended a closed-door meeting with Allen, local leaders and other federal officials.
The possibility, floated earlier this week, that the well might already be plugged didn't sit well with local officials or environmentalists, who said they were leery of optimistic forecasts from BP and the government.
"After all this effort, why would they quit before they're done?" said Richard Charter, a senior policy adviser for Defenders of Wildlife. "If you had a trustworthy company and they said it's done, it's done. But in this case BP has not been a trustworthy company."
Along the Gulf Coast in Houma, La., construction worker Doug Hunt wearily wondered if the crisis would ever end upon hearing that the permanent fix was at least several more days off.
"All we've heard is oil, oil, oil. I guess they'll do the job sooner or later, but it will take a long time for the people here to recover from this," Hunt said.
The crisis began on April 20, after an explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 workers.
Associated Press Writers Harry R. Weber and Noaki Schwartz in New Orleans, Kevin McGill in Gray, La., and Mary Foster in Houma, La., contributed to this report.