Transcript of National Incident Commander Thad Allen's Thursday briefing

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 29, 2010 

This is the transcript of National Incident Commander Thad Allen's briefing with reporters July 29 on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The transcript was ditributed by the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center.

tJuly 29, 2010

12:45 p.m. CDT

Thad Allen: Thank you, Megan. Let me give you a quick operational update and then I'd like to discuss the meeting I had this morning with Governor Jindal and the Louisiana Parish presidents.

We continue to make good progress towards both the static kill and the bottom relief well. We look to be laying the casing line into the relief well later on this evening and cementing that. That will set the stage for us to move on with the static kill which will be pumping the mud and then the cement in through the top of the well.

I briefed you in the past that that was scheduled to take place tentatively next Monday. There is a chance that schedule could be accelerated but it's going to depend on how successful they are and how efficient they are in laying the casing and moving forward.

The pressure in the wellhead is up to 6,951 PSI. It continues to exhibit all of the characteristics of a well with integrity. We continue to do seismic runs and testing, visual monitoring, hydrophone and geophone testing and again there are no indications of anomalies that would lead us to believe we have a problem with well integrity.

We continue to conduct intensive surveillance in the post storm week looking for oil. As we have talked before it's more dispersed and harder to find. So we had 121 surveillance flights yesterday, we have 92 scheduled today plus we have the air ship out there conducting surveillance as well.

We're going to try and be as aggressive as we can with skimmers offshore to try and deal with this oil offshore but again we're finding less and less oil as we move forward. The thing I'd like to talk about probably most today is we had a very, very consequential meeting earlier today, a little over two hours, attended by Governor Jindal and the Parish Presidents of Southern Louisiana.

We talked about a range of issues including local coordination for spill response, coordination as we move from response into recovery, what the implications are of the static kill and the potential bottom kill of the well, how we might want to move forward together, how we can involve the local parishes in that planning, how the parishes then integrate with the state to combine with us to understand the way forward as we shift from more recovery intensive operations excuse me response operations to long-term recovery operations.

And there were three general areas that we had a discussion on and reached agreement. The first one was to involve the state and the parishes in a set of principles or criteria by which we can assess how to move forward from response to recovery and this includes how we want to take a look at how much oil is out there, how it's coming to shore.

As there becomes less oil how to we basically get to the inevitable question of how clean is clean? How do we come back and respond where oil shows up on beaches after we've already dealt with oil beaches and removed the threat.

We are seeking input by next week from the parishes into that set of criteria. That will help us develop a longer term plan. As we move towards the static kill and the bottom kill we want to be ready when we finally remove the threat of oil discharge at all to understand where it is we want to go in the future and how we want to work together in an integrated at the federal, state and local level.

We also had a significant discussion about the preparations we made for the passing of Tropical Storm Bonnie last week to the extent that we can refine our hurricane plans we pretty much were at a what I would call an on or off switch. It was either a hurricane or it wasn't. We didn’t quite get a hurricane but we made preparations to remove equipment and personnel as if it was a hurricane.

I think we all agreed there are going to be gradations of impact on tropical depressions and storms and there might be some intermediate or mid-level types of actions we can take in conjunction with the parishes that would not be as extreme in terms of where the equipment goes that would allow us to make sure it was safely guarded during the storm passage but could be brought back to the scene more quickly.

We engaged in very frank and open discussions with Parish Presidents on that including some of the processes and negotiations and activities that took place over the last week or so. And we have committed to go back and take a look at our storm plans and graduating them in terms of level of severity as it relates to where we would move the equipment and how we would work with the local parishes.

The third area was significant, you know the vessels of opportunity. Obviously as we transition to a point where there is not a threat of a spill and this is all conditioned on the fact that we will have a successful static kill and bottom kill of the well the employment of vessels of opportunity is going to necessarily have to change.

That doesn't mean that there is not going to be work to do but it will be a different type of work to do and we're going to have to understand how we're going to apply these vessels. These vessels are also caught up in the issue of whether or not the fishing areas are open.

They're also caught up in whether or not they're involved as a vessel of opportunity and if they're not whether or not they fall into the claims process. It's a very, very complicated issue. What we decided to do was come up with a joint vessel of opportunity employment plan that would take us through the end of August. It would overlap decisions that are forthcoming on either fishing areas being open.

The Gulf Coast claims process being stood up. So we had to wait to know how we were going to use vessels of opportunity and employ to all these other decisions that are being made external with the response or activities will be brought about – will be conducted.

Those three areas I have Task Admiral Zukunft who is the Unified Area Commander down here to work with the state and the parish presidents. We all committed in the room and that included Governor Jindal and all the parish presidents to move forward in the next week to attack all those three areas.

Let me just summarize them again because I think they're very important. One of them is an agreed upon set of principles and protocols on how we progress to assess whether or not oil cleanup has been completed. And that will necessarily ultimately drive resource and organizational decisions but that would be done with the complete input and collaboration cooperation with the parishes and the state.

Second is greater granularly on hurricane and storm plans. So if we have less severe front that moves through, we know we have a graduated response where we put equipment and how we evacuate personnel or if we need to evacuate personnel so that’s done in the most efficient way possible.

And third, is a program to take a look at vessels of opportunity, how we want to manage them, how we want to employ them. There is an interaction with vessels of opportunity. How we use oil spill response contractors. How missions are assigned between those. And then in what areas and how we use them.

Again we're going to develop a plan moving forward that will cover us through the month of August. All in all it was a very frank open productive meeting. You know these parish presidents, nobody held anything back. We got everything on table I think we needed to talk about.

I thought it was a refreshing conversation. I look forward to having more of these conversations moving forward because I thought it was very productive. Again, I want to thank Governor Jindal and the parish presidents for their participation this morning.

I'll be glad to take any questions you have for me.

Female: Hi, (inaudible), this is not on the topic of the parish president but a question about containment at well site…

Thad Allen: Yes.

Female: (inaudible) mentioned early this week that the containment strategy was continuing to be filled out. And I'm wondering what's the current capacity now particularly since the Q4000 is being retrofitted to pump mud again. How many vessels are out there and if you did have to return containment today what would be capacity.

Thad Allen:If we had to return the containment it would take quite a catastrophic event for that to happen. I think you know given where we're at with the cap. We would have the Helix Producer I out on line and we actually have the Discoverer Enterprise that is there as well as with another top hat variation that could come in and go back over the top of the capping stack should we need to do that.

So we would have the capacity of the Discoverer Enterprise and the Helix Producer but we would not be able to do that right away. It would take a few days to give that up and operating.

And I don’t have the notes in front of me right now but I think we're probably dealing with Discoverer Enterprise somewhere between 15 and 18,000 barrels a day. And I think the Helix Producer if I remember right somewhere between 20 and 25,000 barrels a day.

So that would be the aggregate containment capability we would had such we need to use it. Of course we're happy with where we're at with the capping stack. We've seen no anomalies and we did have well integrity. So I'm not sure that’s going to be required but we have out there in case we need it.

Female: (inaudible).

Thad Allen: That’s being sequenced after the seismic runs and the static kill. As soon as the static kill – well, actually the static kill is done in the bottom kill when we may be at the need for the second riser package but that – remains some work to be done laying some of the lines to be able to complete that and build it out.

Right now because of the – what we call simultaneous operations and everybody can't be doing everything at once in the area. We have prioritize the laying the casing for the relief well and the static kill and the seismic runs and they're helping us assess whether or not we have vessel integrity as the highest priorities with the containment for the second vertical riser to come behind that.

Male: (Mac Davis) (inaudible). Is there any indication of how many vessels of opportunity may still be in water, come this employment plan that’s going through August? That there is 1,500 today. Is it going to half or what's going to happen there?

Thad Allen: I'm not sure we really know and that’s where we've really got to sit down and work this out with the parish presidents and actually this will happen all along the coast.

There are some other things we need to have done. We have enormous amount of boom out there. And some of that boom was actually washed over very sensitive marsh areas in the last storm that came through.

And as we intend to move from response to recovery, we're going to go out and recover that boom. We don’t want plastic, non-biodegradable boom out there in these marshlands forever. In some places it's gotten very, very far up into the marshes. So there is going to be a significant amount of work to do. It's just plain boom recovery, decontamination and then putting that back into storage so where we might need it the future.

We've also taken a look at putting out some monitoring equipment. This is very simple but it's kind of very effective to let us know whether or not there might be subsurface oil in the back areas with the marshes and so forth. It involves basically putting snare boom which oil would adhere to inside a crab trap and putting a buoy up and then checking that every day to see if its detected any oil that’s working through that might come into the bottom where you might normally have a crap trap.

We want to put these out in a variety of areas. We have these out in a Chandelier Islands and Breton Sound right now. So another we might want to use the vessels of opportunity to be put those sensors out.

We know there also is going to be some opportunities working with NOAA regarding fisheries areas, actually catching fish that can be tested in advance of decisions that will be forthcoming regarding the opening in fisheries areas.

So a lot of different things but not quite what they’ve been doing right now. If you can imagine just moving away from skimming type, working lane boom to the types of things we're going to have to do in this transition and then it moving in long-term recovery.

What we needed to figure out is what kind of size of force we're going to need to do that and do that openly and cooperatively with the parishes.

(Jamie Carvic): Hi, (Jamie Carvic) from NPR. What is the current situation with the vessels of opportunity? How many do you have and what – I mean if you could sort of group you know how many you know are working, how many are not. And are they all being paid including the ones that aren't working at the moment.

Thad Allen: I'm going to give – we're going to give you the exact details later on today. We will follow-up with the numbers. Let me just give you generically kind of the way they're group right now.

We have vessels that are enrolled in the program. There is a certain amount of compensation that comes with that. And then on a day-to-day basis when they employ them all sort of actually go do something. So there are kind of two levels of compensations that they might get.

There are also some vessels that have been involved in the program and other vessels that want to enter so in some areas we're actually rotating them out after they’ve served for awhile. We bring some other vessels in.

We have vessel of opportunity operating in areas where we also have contractors. So obviously we can make a decision moving forward on whether or not it's best to use a contractor or use a vessel of opportunity if they can do the same thing. This has to do with the capability of the vessel, the operators and so forth.

As long as we're doing that then we don’t have an economic loss of income and never have to move into the claims process for as far as maintaining their livelihood and making the payments on the boat and so forth.

Those are the exactly discussions that we were having this morning with the parish presidents. It's not a one size fits all. Because the vessels are different in each parish depending on what type of fisheries they're involved in and actually the geography of the waterway and how much they know about it versus what kind of contracting help is available.

That’s the reason I said we need to sit down over the next 9 or 10 days and develop a plant that takes us through the end of August. And so we by that time we will know exactly where we're going with the Gulf Coast claims facility and we can have a plan to deal with them versus how many contractors we want to use.

As you can imagine this is fairly complicated and almost has to be negotiated down to the local level.

Female: (Inaudible).

Thad Allen: A vessel of opportunity would be most likely a commercial fishing vessel that cannot fish right now because of the closure, so there's a loss of income. We have an opportunity to use them as part of the response, to lay boom, pull skimmers, do logistics and things like – normally we would do that with contractors.

You could do it with contractors. So it was a question of the mix in contractors versus vessels of opportunity and what may be better for us to employ the vessels of opportunity in lieu of contractors to make sure they maintain employment.

But as the operation shifts from oil spill response to recovery the types of things we have to do out there are going to change. We just need to negotiate what is the best use of the vessels that are in the area. And that's best on a local level.

And those were the basis of our conversations today.

Camille Whitworth: Good Afternoon, Camille Whitworth, WDSU news. We talked to some parish presidents this morning. You know as you say they don't bite their tongue much. There's some concern that the Coast Guard and BP is pulling out early sort of dwindling what they need and things of that nature.

Can you kind of talk about your timeline on that and is there a pullout of some sort and if so, what?

Thad Alan: Sure. First of all we didn't talk about an exact timeline. We talked about getting the parish presidents and the state involved and all agreeing to the things that would need to happen as we make a transition.

Assuming that the oil flow has stopped and four to six weeks we don't have a lot of oil out there on the water we may be picking it up on the beaches and in the marshes. How do we transition? And what needs to be left in terms or resources? And we also know we're in the middle of hurricane season.

So we know there's going to have to be some residual equipment and capacity at the parish level for them to be able to deal with the remaining hurricane season, any oil that still may be out there.

There's the issue of whether or not we may find oil under the water. That's the reason we're doing some of the testing that I talked about earlier. All of that relates to what the follow on levels of resourcing we need to support the plan.

And I think it was more of an issue of how do we talk to them about how we create the plan and bring them into the process rather than what the ultimate resource level is. I think we all know if you need fewer skimming vessels out there then there's going to be some kind of a resource leveling that we're going to need to consider.

But we all need to know what that is and we also need to know there needs to be somewhat of an insurance policy. Number one we stay there long enough. And number two that there's enough to handle what could reasonably be expected to happen in terms of re-oiling the beaches, tar balls and so forth regarding the fate of the oil moving forward.

And then that was the second point we had a long discussion on this morning. And that's what the planning is going to be going forward.

Female: (Inaudible) like you were pulling out without necessarily being forthcoming with them?

Thad Alan: Well there are a couple different issues. First of all there was an issue about pulling out equipment before that last storm to protect it and then bring it back in, and whether or not that was properly communicated.

We had a long conversation that led to the discussion about graduated plans based on the severity of the storm and what we would do. The second thing is to come up with a set of assumptions or criteria about how we want to deal with cleaning the beaches.

How clean is clean? What kind of resources need to be there and whatever that resourcing level is that supports that would involve the parishes in the planning.

Harry Weber: Harry Weber from the Associated Press. Admiral Alan on the off shore drilling moratorium, there's a long term response plan that some of the industry are putting together. But that's not going to be ready for about 14 months after the current moratorium ends of November 30th.

The question I have is do you – given what you've been dealing with for the last three months, think that that's running a risk worth taking letting that moratorium expire without that plan already in place at that time?

And secondly a housekeeping question can you just tell us the current depth of the two relief wells?

Thad Alan: Well first of all, the moratorium is a policy issue that's above my pay grade. And the consortium that's being put together for deep sea drilling response with the other companies is something I think certainly is a worthy idea they need to be looking at.

But it is not connected directly to this response so I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment. I think from a policy standpoint when we're all through this response and looking at lessons learned, I think there may be some significant things they would like to know as far as the consortium goes about what actually happened in bottom in terms of well control.

And I don't have the figures in front of me right now but I think we're at development driller three, I'm thinking it's probably around 17,800 and I'll get that exactly for you. And I think we're around 16,000 on development driller two.

I just didn't walk out with the numbers with me. But we'll get you the exact numbers.

Megan Maloney: Operator at this time we're prepared to take some questions from the phone please.

Operator: You have a question from (Denise Haywold) with (Clearwater Perspective).

(Denise Haywold): Hi, thank you for taking my call. I just have a quick question for you in regards to the static kill. With the containment cap currently holding all the oil in the well, what is the logic behind actually putting forth the static kill?

Is there any way we could possibly just put that to the side and then wait for the relief wells to come in and to intersect them to drill? I mean are we kind of playing with fire here?

Thad Alan: I don’t think so. If we had indication there was a problem with well integrity, in other words we could attribute the current pressures in the capping stack to the fact that there was a problem with the casing or the well bore that was allowing oil or hydrocarbons to leak out into the formation in such quantity they could seep up to the floor of the ocean, that would be a significant concern to us.

But once we were able to close in or the cap, and then conduct seismic survey, acoustic surveys, take the temperatures of the well head, the pressures at the well head, use hydrophones and geophones, and basically create what I would call a three dimensional MRI of the formation surrounding the well, our science team has come to the conclusion that we do have well integrity.

The well is safe to do a static kill that this would actually enhance and make more effective the ultimate bottom kill because we would be filling the well with mud and then cement from the top down.

That would mean that when we intersect the annulus at some point after the static kill we would then fill the well with mud and cement from the bottom up outside the casing. We would then check to see if the static kill had worked then you actually have the option then, you don't need the final step of the bottom kill by drilling into the pipe and having to fill that as well.

That would already be accomplished by the static kill. There's a lot of discussion over the last several weeks about the pros and cons of the fact that we started with a low pressure inside the cap.

The pressure has steadily risen and its risen in a pattern that’s consistent with the well with integrity and I believe the general consensus between the science team and BP right now is we're probably had depletion of the reservoir due to the oil that was released to date that resulted in a lower starting pressure when we put the cap on.

So for those combined reasons, we feel it's safe to go ahead with the static kill and then follow that with a bottom kill.

(Denise Haywold): Thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from (David Fleshler) with the (South Florida Sun).

(David Fleshler): Hi, (David Fleshler) with the (South Florida Sun Sentinel). I wanted to ask about the loop current and the possibility of oil reaching the Florida Keys or the rest of South Florida.

Assuming the well gets permanently plugged is that danger over?

Thad Alan: Yes it will be. Once the well is killed we will secure the source of oil relation to the Macondo well. I would tell you this, for the past almost several months now there has been an eddy that has broken off from the loop current between the well head.

And where that current actually comes north and then turns and goes back down to the straits of Florida, so there's actually been a eddy that's created a barrier, hydraulic barrier if you will between the well head and the loop current.

And the chances that oil would become entrained in the loop current are very, very low and will go to zero as we continue to control the leakage at the well with the cap and ultimately kill it.

Male: That’s even counting the oil that’s already out there all the (different) very small amounts at the surface.

Thad Allen: That’s correct the recent storm Tropical Depression Bonnie that came through actually drove most of the oil that’s out there to the North West. And so where we’re seeing oil in any concentration and it’s not a lot is somewhere between the middle to Western end of Mississippi Sound down through the Chandelier Islands to the Breton Sound to the passes into the Mississippi River over to Barataria Bay, (Tembalara Bay), and Terrebonne.

And very little to the East so if you get past the Perdido Pass over into the panhandle of Florida we’re seeing very little impact over there. And this is all moving in the opposite direction of where the oil would need to be to enter the loop current.

Male: Thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from Brian Walsh with Time Magazine.

Brian Walsh: Hi, Admiral where does the sand berm plan stand at this point. I mean is it – is construction still proceeding on those given the fact that the oil as you point out has been so considerably in zone that is likely to flow longer? Is that just going to be stopped I mean what actually is the (inaudible)?

Thad Allen: Brian, I think I didn’t get the first half of your question could you repeat it please.

Brian Walsh: Yes, sorry I was wondering what’s happening with the sand berm, Governor Jindal plan, given that the oil now has stopped flowing for the most part is much thinner. Is that simply going to be stopped I mean what actually is happening with this.

Thad Allen: Well the process for building out the sand berms was actually past to a relationship between BP and the state subject to the dredging permits that were provided to the state. And they’ve been pretty much doing that bilaterally. It doesn’t involve national incident command and I’d almost refer you to go Governor Jindal and BP for the status on that.

Megan Maloney: Operator we’ll take the next question please.

Operator: Your next question comes from (Brett Lanton) with Houston Chronicle.

(Brett Lanton): Hi, Admiral thanks for taking the question. Two quick questions under what circumstances would the static kill procedure move forward ahead of schedule first question. And then secondly, any more detail today on the flow rate from the well thank you.

Thad Allen: Things would allow us maybe to move faster on the static kill would be increased schedule gain and laying the casing and cementing that in, which is a pre condition of the static kill. After that it would be the preparations would be made on the Q4000 and there are two boats working with the Q4000.

One is a mud supply boat the other one is a boat that actually pumps the mud from the mud supply boat to the Q4000 and down into the manifold before it enters the well head itself. There are certain final preparations that they are going through in advance of that. Should any of those gain some time in the detail the types of steps they have to go through we could maybe see this thing accelerated into the weekend.

But right now let’s hold it Monday until we see whether or not they’re actually able to gain any time. And on the fate of the oil on the old budget the flow rate a lot of discussion on that the last week or so. Our science folks are really working this hard.

We know that as we come to the end of potentially being able to put an end to the oil flow the question of how much oil is actually released is out there we’ve always said that the range of 35 to 60,000 barrels a day was just a range. And we’re going to try and narrow that.

We now have more information than we did before we have pressure readings from the capping stack as we put that on. We have all the data that’s been taken in around the well we’re going to have more data as we do the static kill in relation to pressure inside the well. And that all collectively is being analyzed by our science team right now.

They’re also taking a look at the amount of oil that’s been detected on the surface through various types of sensors and we’ll be bringing all that together until the extent that we can come up with a refined flow rate we will do that. But that in turn will allow us to come up with a better estimate on the total amount of oil and then we can start taking a look at what’s been skimmed, burned, disbursed, what should have been evaporated.

And hopefully in the end we’ll get a good handle on the fate of the oil since it was discharged into the environment and what may not be accounted for out there. And that’s of great interest to us and to everybody else and we’re working on it right now and I think you’ll see that forthcoming in the next week or so.

Megan Maloney: Operator at this time we’ll take our final question.

Operator: Your final question comes from Susan Daker with Dow Jones.

Susan Decker: Oh, you know my question’s been answered thank you so much.

Thad Allen: Astounding. Thank you folks.

Operator: Thank you for participating in today’s conference call you may now disconnect.

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