NEW ORLEANS — BP hopes to keep using its giant stopper to block oil from reaching the Gulf of Mexico until they plug the blown out well permanently, the company said Sunday.
"No one associated with this whole activity ... wants to see any more oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico," said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer. "Right now we don't have a target to return the well to flow."
Retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen outlined a different plan on Saturday, saying that after the test was complete, the cap would be hooked up through nearly a mile of pipes stretching to ships on the surface that will collect the oil.
But that would mean oil would have to be released back into the Gulf for three days to release pressure from the well, Suttles said. The oil giant hopes to instead keep the oil shut in until its permanent measure is completed, although Suttles said BP was taking it day by day.
It wasn't immediately clear if the plan had changed, or if BP and the government disagreed about the next move. Allen will make the ultimate decision.
Both Allen and BP have said they don't know how long the trial run – initially set to end Saturday – will continue. Allen has extended it to Sunday afternoon, and could extend it again.
Unimpeded, the well spewed as much as 2.5 million gallons a day, according to the government's worst-case estimates. It's possible the oil has been depleted, and that's why pressure readings from the cap have been lower than anticipated, BP has said.
Scientists still aren't sure whether the shut-in is causing oil to leak into the bedrock surrounding the well, which could make the seabed unstable. That's why pumping the oil up to four ships on the surface and containing it there may be a safer option.
But to do that, millions of gallons of oil could spew into the water when the cap is initially reopened, an image both BP and the federal government would like to avoid.
BP is drilling two relief wells, one of them as a backup. The company said work on the first one was far enough along that officials expect to reach the broken well's casing, or pipes, deep underground by late this month. Then the job of jamming it with mud and cement could take "a number of days through a few weeks."
The cap, which on Thursday stopped the crude for the first time since the April 20 explosion unleashed the spill, lets BP shut in the oil, which would be important if a hurricane were to hit the Gulf and force ships to leave the area.
Pressure in the well cap continues to rise, and scientists are still monitoring for any signs of a leak, but the news still seems to be good, Suttles said. The oil giant is hoping to keep evaluating even after the extended monitoring period it was given by the government, which expires Sunday afternoon.
"We're not seeing any problems at this point with the shut-in," Suttles said at a Sunday morning briefing.
It will take months, or possibly years for the Gulf to recover. But there were signs that people were trying to get life – or at least a small part of it – back to normal.
The public beach at Gulf Shores, Ala., had its busiest day in weeks on Saturday despite oil-stained sand and a dark line of tar balls left by high tide.
Darryl Allen of Fairhope, Ala., and Pat Carrasco of Baton Rouge, La., came to the beach to throw a Frisbee just like they've been doing for the past 30 years. With oil on people's minds more than the weather, Allen asked what's become a common question since the well integrity test began: "How's the pressure? I hope it's going up," he said. "You don't want to be too optimistic after all that's happened."
People also were fishing again, off piers and in boats, after most of the recreational waters in Louisiana were reopened late this week. More than a third of federal waters are still closed and off-limits to commercial fishermen.
"I love to fish," said Brittany Lawson, hanging her line off a pier beside the Grand Isle Bridge. "I love to come out here."
And even though it has been only days since the oil was turned off, the naked eye could spot improvements on the water. The crude appeared to be dissipating quickly on the surface of the Gulf around the Deepwater Horizon site.
Members of a Coast Guard crew that flew over the wellhead Saturday said far less oil was visible than a day earlier. Only a colorful sheen and a few long streams of rust-colored, weathered oil were apparent in an area covered weeks earlier by huge patches of black crude. Somewhere between 94 million and 184 million gallons have spilled into the Gulf, according to government estimates.
Weber reported from Houston.