NEW ORLEANS - In a nail-biting day across the Gulf Coast, engineers struggled to make sense of puzzling pressure readings from the bottom of the sea Friday to determine whether BP's capped oil well was holding tight.
Halfway through a critical 48-hour window, the signs were promising but far from conclusive.
Kent Wells, a BP vice president, said on an evening conference call engineers had found no indication that the well has started leaking underground.
"No news is good news, I guess that's how I'd say it," Wells said.
Engineers are keeping watch over the well for a two-day period in a scientific, round-the-clock vigil to see if the well's temporary cap is strong enough to hold back the oil, or if there are leaks either in the well or the seafloor. One mysterious development was that the pressure readings were not rising as high as expected, said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the crisis.
Allen said two possibilities were being debated by scientists: The reservoir that is the source of the oil could be running lower three months into the spill. Or there could be an undiscovered leak somewhere down in the well. Allen ordered further study but remained confident.
"This is generally good news," he said. But, "We need to be careful not to do any harm or create a situation that cannot be reversed." He said testing would go on into the night, at which point BP may decide whether to reopen the cap and allow some oil to spill into the sea again.
Throughout the day, no one was declaring victory, or failure. President Barack Obama cautioned the public "not to get too far ahead of ourselves," warning of the danger of new leaks "that could be even more catastrophic."
Even if the cap passes the test, more uncertainties lie ahead: Where will the oil spilled go? How long will it take to clean up the coast? What will happen to the region's fishermen? And will life on the Gulf Coast ever be the same again? "I'm happy the well is shut off, that there's a light at the end of the tunnel," said Tony Kennon, mayor of hard-hit Orange Beach, Ala. But "I'm watching people moving away, people losing their jobs, everything they've got."
On Thursday, BP closed the vents on the new, tightfitting cap and finally stopped crude from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since the April 20 oil-rig explosion killed 11 workers and unleashed the spill 5,000 feet down.
With the cap working like a giant cork to keep the oil inside the well, scientists kept watch on screens at sea and at BP's Houston headquarters.
Pressure readings after 24 hours were about 6,700 pounds per square inch and rising slowly, Allen said, below the 7,500 psi that would clearly show the well was not leaking. A low pressure reading, or a falling one, could mean the oil is escaping.