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Environment

BP extends test of Gulf of Mexico oil well

HOUSTON (Reuters) - BP Plc extended for another 24 hours a critical test of its blown-out Gulf of Mexico well that so far has shut off the huge oil leak, the top U.S. official overseeing the spill response said on Saturday.

The British energy giant, which cut off the flow of oil from the lengthy deep-sea well on Thursday when it began the test to gauge its structural integrity, expressed growing confidence that the well was sealed.

When BP choked off the flow of oil on Thursday using a new, tight-fitting containment cap installed atop the well a mile under the ocean surface, it marked the first time the gusher had stopped since the April 20 offshore rig explosion that killed 11 workers and triggered the disaster.

The massive oil spill has caused an economic and environmental disaster along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

“As we continue to see success in the temporary halt of oil from the leak, the U.S. government and BP have agreed to allow the well integrity test to continue another 24 hours,” retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. government’s point man on the spill, said in a statement.

Kent Wells, BP senior vice president of exploration and production, added that “we’re feeling more comfortable that we have integrity” in the well.

Officials are monitoring the pressure in the well, which extends 2.5 miles under the seabed, to judge whether it is structurally sound with no seabed leaks. Allen’s statement did not provide pressure readings as of Saturday afternoon.

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The ongoing test is intended to show whether the April explosion damaged the piping and cement inside the well, which could allow oil and gas to leak out the sides and seep up through the seabed.

It had been due to last two days and end Saturday. Allen’s statement indicates it will continue through Sunday afternoon.

Allen said that when the test is stopped, BP will immediately start up two oil-capture vessels on the surface to siphon crude from the well.

President Barack Obama, whose U.S. public approval ratings slipped as the oil spill crisis dragged on, has welcomed the capping of the well but cautioned that there is much work to be done before a permanent solution is achieved.

PERMANENT FIX

Even if test ends successfully, officials have said the only permanent fix is a relief well BP has been drilling to intersect the ruptured well under the seabed and seal it with mud and cement next month.

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Obama has been under fire to push London-based BP to plug the leak and clean up an environmental and economic mess in all five states on the Gulf of Mexico. The spill, the worst in U.S. history, has ravaged multibillion-dollar fishing, tourism and drilling industries and soiled hundreds of miles of seashore.

Wells said pressure in the well was rising more slowly than hoped. Pressure reached 6,745 pounds per square inch (psi) on Saturday morning and was rising about 2 psi per hour, he said.

Allen and BP have said they want pressure to hit and sustain 7,500 psi or more, which would indicate oil and gas was flowing to the top with no breaches.

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The higher pressure would indicate the well could hold back all the oil flow if ships siphoning off the crude had to disconnect and move away in advance of a hurricane. Pressure beneath 6,000 psi would indicate a possible leak, officials said.

Once the test is complete, BP plans to siphon up to 80,000 barrels (12.7 million liters) of oil a day and send it to waiting ships on the sea surface.

Allen has final say on when the test will end and BP’s next course of action, Wells said.

LOCKERBIE BOMBING CONTROVERSY

The oil spill crisis continues to complicate U.S. relations with close ally Britain. British Prime Minister David Cameron is set to meet with Obama on Tuesday.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday “there is no evidence that corroborates in any way the allegations of BP involvement” in Scotland’s release last year of a Libyan man convicted of the 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner over Scotland.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a July 29 hearing on possible ties between BP and the release by Scotland of Abdel Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer who was the only person convicted of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Lockerbie bombing killed 270 people, most of them Americans.

The Foreign Relations Committee plans to ask BP officials to testify about the matter after the company said it had lobbied the British government in 2007 to speed up a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.

Many Britons have expressed the view that the United States is treating BP too harshly to the detriment of British pension funds and other investors who have big stakes in the company.

Last month BP, under pressure from Obama, agreed to create a $20 billion fund to cover damage claims from the spill.

Estimates vary widely on BP’s total costs -- from $40 billion to $100 billion -- which will run on for many years as lawsuits wind their way through courts.

Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage in Louisiana; Writing Timothy Gardner; Editing by Will Dunham and Eric Walsh

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