Transcript of Adm. Thad Allen's Aug. 19 briefing on BP's Gulf oil spill

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 25, 2010 

This is the transcript of National Incident Commader Thad Allen's Aug. 19 briefing on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The transcript was provided by the Deepwater Horizon Incident joint Information Center.

August 19, 2010

12 p.m. EDT

Thad Allen: Thanks, Jeff. Good afternoon. I'd like to update you on the current planning and the future intentions regarding the – a bottom kill of the well. Let me start with a couple of contextual remarks.

Over the last week or so that we've had intense negotiations and discussions between the government science team headed by Secretary Steven Chu and the BP engineers in Houston. The central point of discussion has revolved around the likelihood of pressure building in the annulus between the well and well bore at the time of intersection. And just to refresh you all, the drill bit right now on the relief well from Development Driller III sits about 3-1/2 feet from the well itself, and about 50 feet above the intersection point. It's been held there pending a decision based on the consultations between the science team and the BP engineers regarding whether or not we should handle – how we should handle the pressure related to the intersection when the mud goes into the annulus. There are two potential scenarios. Do we have a problem? I'm sorry. I'm seeing a lot of non-verbals in the room here. Female: No, sir we just don’t want any flash photography (inaudible). Thad Allen: OK, thank you. Thank you. The consultations thus far revolved around two potential scenarios. One involves going ahead and intersecting the annulus with the current blow out preventer and the capping stack in place. The other one is to replace the current blow out preventer and capping stack with a new blow out preventer prior to conducting the intersect. As we were taking part in these discussions, we directed that they prepare the blow out preventer on Development Driller II – that's the one that's associated with the second relief well for use as a blow out preventer, should we need that. We also directed BP to flush out the current blow out preventer and capping stack, clean it out and fill it with sea water in anticipation of an ambient test where we have sea water in the BOP that is the same liquid that we have outside the BOP to allow us to do a more accurate pressure test. All that has been completed and last night we agreed to proceed to remove the current blow out preventer and capping stack, replace it with a new blow preventer in advance of the well kill subject to conditions. The conditions are that we'll conduct an ambient pressure test. That is a test conducted with sea water inside the blow out preventer, the same type of liquid that is outside the blow out preventer. And the course of that test over 48 hours, which began this morning,that we find no anomalies and there are no hydrocarbons present. The second condition is that we will, upon completion of the ambient pressure test, conduct what we call a fishing experiment. And that's exactly what it is. We are going to actually put a drill bit down in the blow out preventer and attempt to extract the drill pipe. The reason we want to try and extract the drill pipe that reduces the risk that when we remove the blow out preventer and put the new one on, there won't be an (off score) or some kind of a bar to having a seal with the new blow out preventer. And we have told BP you need to do the ambient test, conduct the fishing experiment, come back to us with the results and then we will proceed after that to give them following – discussions as a follow on. All of this has been done over an overabundance of caution related to minimizing risk associated with the intersection of the well. We are very, very close to the end. This gets to be a very, very complex evolution and there are no black and white choices here and this has required a significant amount of discussion. In addition, when we remove the blow out preventer from the deep water horizon and we start dealing with pipe – drill pipe associated with the well, we necessarily have consultations with the joint investigation team and the Department of Justice regarding materiality of this material is it relates to ongoing investigations. So any process that we talk about moving forward necessarily involves the science team and the BP engineers, but it also involves understanding what the disposition of the equipment will be once it's removed in relation to the ongoing investigations. At the press brief yesterday someone asked about a timeline, I said there was no timeline at the present and that was true. There remains a sequence of events that will be carried out. They are conditions based. When we take one step and we are successful, we will move to the next step. Should all these steps prove successful and we move towards the eventual intersection of the well, that could take place sometime the week after Labor Day. That's as specific of a timeline that I'm prepared to give you at this point because there are a lot of intervening steps that have to be taken. And I don’t want to create the expectation we'll meet a certain date when we need to know the results of the pressure test and the fishing experiment will take place. And that's the brief for today and I'll be glad to take your questions. Female: Admiral, I'm (inaudible) from (CBS) news but are you confident in saying at this point that all the seafood coming from the Gulf is safe for consumption? Thad Allen: I've said this on several occasions, seafood that comes from the areas that have been opened for fishing that have been subjected to the testing regime established by NOAA and FDA is safe. It is probably tested more than any seafood that is tested anywhere in the United States. Male: So what's the risk that (inaudible) oil coming out during either of these processes, removing the drill pipe or the removal of the blow out preventer? Thad Allen: That's the purpose of the ambient pressure test. We're trying to create the exact same conditions inside the blow out preventer that will exist when it's lifted off. In other words, you'll have the sea water and the current pressure and we're looking for any gases, any hydrocarbons, anything escaping in the next 48 hours to tell us if there will be a problem with the removal of the blow out preventer. That's exactly what this test is intended to do. Male: And then you mentioned the Department of Justice. Would the FBI then take possession of these materials if they're actually able to be lifted off? Thad Allen: There are two entities that are involved. One is the joint investigation team. That is the joint investigation team that was established by the Department of Interior and Homeland Security that also includes the equivalent of a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation. They are the ones that are actually determining the facts. They coordinating very closely with the Department of Justice to make sure that any evidence that is handled on behalf of the joint investigations team, which are the ones that issued the subpoenas for the equipment, by the way, is handled in conjunction with procedures that are consistent with DOJ practice. So we are not precluded from using that material sometime in the future, should that be needed. Male: You had mentioned that (inaudible) the blow out preventer out of the (inaudible)? Thad Allen: They will do that. What we have to determine is under what conditions, under what supervision, under what rules, where it will go, how it will be moved and how it will be stored. This is the chain of evidence. Go to the phone? Operator: Our first caller is Joel Achenbach with the Washington News. Joel Achenbach: Yes, thanks, Admiral. Can you remind us what is the deal with the drill pipe? You're talking about this fishing expedition – this fishing experiment I guess you called it to remove the drill pipe. Can you explain you know what is going on with this drill pipe? And I – there was this odd thing where there seemed to be two drill pipes in the BOP or in the – maybe it was in the riser earlier in this process. And then one of the drill pipes seemed to vanish. Can you just clarify what's going on? Thad Allen: Joel, your memory is good. If you will remember when we cut through the riser pipe before we moved the stub of the pipe and unbolted the flange, we were concerned there might be pipe or even two pieces of pipe there. And one of our procedures we were prepared to do was actually put a metal band around both pieces of the pipe, pull them together so that the spooling tool could fit over the top (inaudible) that connection between the blow out preventer and the capping stack. When we actually cut the pipe and got in, we found out there was only a single pipe there. That leads us to believe that the pipe is suspended by the shears that closed but did not cut the pipe and the deep water horizon blow out preventer. And so we're working under the assumption that there is pipe suspended, held in place by the blow out preventer. We don’t know how far down it goes and we don’t know whether or not it is connected to the 5,000 feet of cement that was put in during the top kill. So after the ambient pressure test is done, it would inform us as to whether or not the BOP could be removed without hydrocarbons being emitted. The next thing will be to see if we can remove that pipe. That doesn't preclude us from removing the blow out preventer and putting another one on. It will just make it a little more complicated and BP will have to provide us a procedure on how they will do that. Was that responsive, Joel? Joel Achenbach: Yes, sir but let me just follow up. If you take the stacking cap off and the blow out preventer so you just have a well head there, you've got this pipe leading down into it which may be leading into the cement. You're going to yank this pipe out, I mean just as a lay person, it strikes me that you're begging for trouble, potentially. I mean, isn't there some chance that in horsing around with this thing that the well could – you could have hydrocarbons flowing again? Thad Allen: First of all with all due respect, Joel, a yank is not a very scientific term. We've talked about this quite a bit. Part of the admonition in the order that I just signed this morning is they will do nothing to cause further damage to the well. So they would have to come to us with a procedure on how they would have to handle the type and we would have to ascertain at that point whether or not we wanted to just put the blow out preventer on over the existing pipe. In other words, this will be a risk based decision based on the condition of the pipe and success of the fishing experiment. We would do nothing to damage the integrity of this well or take further risks. That is the reason these discussions have gone on so long. Joel Achenbach: Thank you. Female: Admiral, is that pipe (inaudible) the new blow out preventer over top of it (inaudible)? Thad Allen: Well we would ask them for options. It might be that it would be severed at some point lower than that. We would have them come back and present a plan to us and with the risks associated with that, but overall the first rule would be do no harm to the well and do not risk any hydrocarbon release. Next question, operator. Operator: Our next caller Vivian Kuo from CNN. Vivian Kuo: Hi there, Admiral. Going back to the ambient pressure test. Did you say that the testing period began this morning so that means it would be concluded by Saturday morning? And then how long would the actual fishing experiment take? Thad Allen I provided them direction to begin the ambient test previously, so I did not have to reiterate that in the order this morning. But once the systems were flush and was filled with seawater they were ready to go. I believe it was just a little before seven this morning and the test is intended to go 48 hours, which would take it to Saturday morning, that's correct. Vivian Kuo: And then fishing experiment? Thad Allen: Well, I think that's going to be – that'll be condition spaced and we'll see what they find out. What they've done is they brought the Discoverer Enterprise over with a riser pipe and we're going to put it back over to the top of the capping stack. In other words to replicate the connection, the Discoverer Enterprise had with a capping stack prior to the well shut in that we did several weeks ago. That'll be the modality by which they will put a smaller drill pipe down and attempt to fish the pipe out but we won't know that until we actually assess the conditions when we do it. Operator: Our next caller is Kasia Klimasinska from Bloomberg. Kasia Klimasinska: Hi, thanks a lot for taking my question. Could you just very briefly describe why has this decision been made to try and remove the BOP before the bottom kill because it kind of looks like the bottom kill is getting delayed and delayed. Thad Allen: The bottom kill isn't being delayed, the bottom kill is going forward with very deliberate consultation between the science team and BP to make sure that we don't worsen the condition of the well and we are successful with the bottom kill. We are all committed to the bottom kill, this is not a question of whether or not we're going to kill this well, it's a question of when of how. The how is basically been decided based on a set of conditions. If we were to go ahead and go with the other option, which would be to intercept the well and increase the pressure in the annulus, we run the risk of forcing the seal up at the top of the well and having whatever material that was in the annulus, whether it's hydrocarbon and/or mud enter the deepwater horizon blowout preventer in the capping stack and potentially exceeding the pressures in the stack and causing a discharge into the environment unless we could come up with some kind of device to relieve the pressure or move that stuff to the surface. The complexity associated with that and the risks associated with that and the timeline associated with that we're deemed to be – make that not the most favorable choice and we elected to move the blowout preventer in first before the bottom kill. Was that responsive? Kasia Klimasinska: Yes, thank you. Operator: Our next caller is Harry Weber from the Associated Press. Harry Weber: Hi, Admiral Allen. I have a multipart question. One, there's a letter that Transocean sent to BP dated yesterday in which they accused BP of withholding vital information from anyone conducting an investigation other than themselves. I'm wondering if you're aware of that letter and if in connection with your work, has BP withheld any information that's been vital to your work or the investigations that you're aware the U.S. government is conducting. Thad Allen: I'm not aware of the correspondence between Transocean and BP and would not comment on a private correspondence between them. In regard to your very, very general question, none that I'm aware of today. Harry Weber: OK. And on the BOP issue, I'm just curious, you had indicated of the two options that you all were considering either devise a new mechanism to relieve the pressure or replacing the BOP, that the one that would take the less time you believe was replacing the BOP. And I'm wondering – I'm just asking from an engineering and science point of view why it will take at least three weeks to get to the point where you can drill that last little bit and start the bottom kill. Thad Allen: We first have to complete the ambient pressure test. Once the pressure test is done, we have to complete the fishing experiment for the pipe. We have to assess the results of the fishing experiment and that will dictate the way forward. At that point we would have to prep the BOP for removal and we would have to remove the BOP, we would have to install a new BOP. We would have to hook it up to a lower marine riser package, to a riser pipe. We would have to test that BOP and then also test the hangar mechanism that connects down to the well and at that point we would be ready to start drilling. If you add all those sequences up, it logically takes you to a point sometime after Labor Day. I can't parse those down into particular dates or a timeline but that sequence of events would have to occur and some of them are conditions based therefore it's not susceptible to an exact timeline other than our best estimate from talking with the scientists and BP it would be logically sometime after Labor Day. Next question. Operator: Our next caller is Kristen Hays from Reuters. Kristen Hays: Yes, hello, Admiral. I'm hoping you can kind of help me understand when they remove the current blowout preventer and place the new one on there, is there a seal or something at the top that prevents any of that oil that you think might be in the annulus from getting out? Thad Allen: There is and what we're trying to do is make sure that none of that is compromised by the doing the ambient pressure test. We're looking for two things, hydrocarbons that might be coming up from the well. We don't think that's likely because there's about 5,000 feet of cement there. And then any hydrocarbons that might be coming up to that seal from the annulus, if there is pressure, they'll be pushing hydrocarbons out that, that would be indication to us that we have communication between the annulus and the reservoir which means we could go ahead with the bottom kill right now. We don't believe that's the case but we need to verify that through the ambient pressure test. There is a seal at the top, it's at a place called the casing hanger and with enough pressure inside the annulus it lifts up and can be opened into the blowout preventer. During the ambient pressure test we will be looking for hydrocarbons from that seal as well, (inaudible) might come up out of the well although we don't expect that but we need to do this out of an overabundance of caution. Kristen Hays: OK, so the science teams and you have enough confidence in that cement that's (still) at the bottom and that seal that's at the top of the well that you can do this without a problem? Thad Allen: It is less risk than the other one, nothing is without risk but we think the risk is minimal. This even included a trip to the manufacturer of the casing hanger of which that seal was a part by the science team and other members that were consulted to actually understand completely what the dynamics of that seal are and that was all taken into account. Kristen Hays: OK, thank you, sir. Thad Allen: We'll take two more questions, operator. Operator: Our next caller is Sheila McNulty from Financial Times. Sheila McNulty: Hi, I just wanted to check why all this change. I'm sorry if some of this seems repetitive but it seems like two, three weeks ago it was all mid-August, mid-August, now its three weeks later. You knew what you were doing, you knew that this situation existed, what changed? Was there some new information or something that came up? Thad Allen: I'd say two things, first of all we did have a couple weather delays and secondly each time we take another step we learn more about the condition of the well and what we know and what we don't know. And the latest amount of information we got was after we submitted the well in and did the pressure tests, starting to consider what the condition of the annulus was and we found out that after the cementing of the top of the well through the static kill that we most likely had a static annulus. And if there was not communication between the annulus and the reservoir, that then introduced a risk that was not previously known. And that risk was if you pressurize the annulus you could force that seal up at the top and have communication into the reservoir that was not known until that time. And what we have done is once we have a new set of information and data we put the science team together with the BP engineers and we talked through it. As we get to the end, we are very close to putting this well away, I think none of us want to make a mistake at this point and I have no problem as the National Incident Commander with an overabundance of caution. Sheila McNulty: Did the top kill – the procedure of doing the top kill complicate things? Did they create any of the additional issues you're seeing now? Thad Allen: Well there's some that would tell you that the lack of communication between the annulus and the reservoir might not be cement, it could be just a collapse of the formation around it. We really don't know, all we know is there's no communication. One assumption is that that was cement from the top kill but the fact of the matter is – the facts we have on ground is that there's no apparent communication between the annulus and the reservoir. Operator: Our last caller is Noah Brenner from Upstream. Noah Brenner: Hi, thank you for taking my question. I was just wondering, as I understand it, so if there's no communication between the annulus and the reservoir, what you're concerned about is the release of this 1,000 barrels of liquid that's contained in the annulus, whether that's mud or actual oil? Is that – is the danger of that being released into the environment, is that what's causing this somewhat complicated process of replacing the BOP? Or is there danger that by increasing that pressure, you could actually damage the integrity of the well to the point where communication between the reservoir, where you could actually open a path between the reservoir and the surface again? Because honestly if it – it seems like if this whole thing is being done for – to keep a 1,000 barrels out of the Gulf, which I'm not downplaying that but it seems like quite a bit when you've already spilled 4.9 million. Was just hoping you could sort of explain to me exactly what the course of action was trying to mitigate. Thad Allen: I guess I would start with the fact that when we start thinking that 1,000 barrels of oil is not much, I think we've become jaded. But other than that, you're partially right, we don't know the condition of the bottom of the annulus. It could be that there – that whatever is blocking that wouldn't take much to move it. We don't know, we think that's a low probability but would be a very high consequence outcome. The only thing we don't want is direct communication between that reservoir and the surface. The second issue is the things we would have to do to either control pressure or vent that stuff off of the capping stack would have to be engineered, brought to the scene and basically kind of build from scratch. A third … Noah Brenner: Could you not just open … Thad Allen: … A third item that I haven't explicitly stated but I think is implicit in everything we're doing, is we do not want to have damage to that blowout preventer. If we can avoid it because it's going to be material evidence to exactly what happened during the event itself. Noah Brenner: … Could you not just open the vents on the capping stack and allow the 1,000 barrels – and I know, I don't want 1,000 barrels in the Gulf anymore than anyone else but could you not vent it that way? Thad Allen: You could but we don't know what the implications are on the blowout preventer and the capping stack as that was (happening), in the seals and everything else. Even the seal that might be comprised in doing this might be material to trying to understand what happened during the event. So we're also concerned about preserving as much of the mechanical evidence as we can while we're doing this, so it's an issue of the bottom of the annulus, the pressure, potential discharge and not damaging any more of the blowout preventer or the drilling system then we have to. Male: All right, thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Thad Allen: Thank you. END

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