HOUSTON - BP Plc planned to launch a critical pressure test on its ruptured Gulf of Mexico oil well on Thursday, the company said, after fixing a leak that had halted the operation.
The company is trying to test a fix to the oil well that could staunch the gushing flow of crude. The worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history has polluted the ocean and coastline for nearly three months.
Kent Wells, BP's senior vice president of exploration and production, said the company replaced a leaking hose and would launch the pressure test — postponed after finding the leak — "later in the day."
A leak in a line connected to one of the valves in a capping device was the latest setback for the British company, which has seen its share value and reputation battered as it has sought to stem the flow of oil.
BP, which is in U.S. lawmakers' crosshairs over the disaster, could face being barred from getting new U.S. offshore oil and gas exploration leases for up to seven years under a bill being considered in the U.S. Congress.
In an issue unrelated to the spill, but illustrating the pressure it faces in the United States, the company also confirmed on Thursday that it had lobbied the UK government over a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya in late 2007.
In August 2009, Britain released a Libyan convicted of blowing up a U.S. jet, angering the United States. Many of the 270 dead in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing were American.
The Gulf spill started after an explosion at a rig on April 20 ruptured an undersea well and killed 11 workers. The disaster has soiled hundreds of miles of shoreline and shut down about a third of Gulf fisheries.
BP installed a capping device on the well on Monday and started shutting a sequence of valves after getting approval from the U.S. government, which had delayed the plan by 24 hours on fears the process could irreparably damage the well.
In London, BP shares fell 1 percent to 397 pence, underperforming a flat FTSE 100 blue-chip index, as investors waited for the test results. BP American Depositary Receipts were seen 1 percent higher.
Arbuthnot analyst Doug Youngson said: "There is quite a lot of nervousness about how effective this cap is going to be and whether it might, in fact, make matters worse. There is a very high degree of uncertainty over which way this is going to go.
"The language was very bullish at the start of the week but it's quite quickly turned around."
BP's shares have been ravaged since the well rupture, with $100 billion in market value being knocked off at one stage, before a three-week rally sparked by takeover talk, speculation about investment by a sovereign wealth fund and hopes that the well would be capped.
Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is overseeing the U.S. response to the spill, has said if the planned tests show the well can withstand certain pressures, odds are good it could be "shut in" indefinitely.
If tests, which will be assessed every six hours, show that closing the cap might cause further damage to the well, the capping device could instead be used as part of a system to capture the oil and siphon it to ships on the surface.
BP is also drilling two relief wells, intended to provide a definitive plug to the ruptured well. Plugging the leak with that solution could take until mid-August.
(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Cecilia Valente in London, Alexandria Sage in Buras, Louisiana, Chris Baltimore in Houston and Matthew Lynley in New York; Writing by Deborah Charles and Sitaraman Shankar; Editing by Erica Billingham and Frances Kerry)
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