Transcript of Thad Allen's July 21 briefing on the BP Macondo well

This is the transcript of former Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen's briefing Wednesday of reporters on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The transcript was distributed by the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Command Center. Allen briefed from Washington.

July 21, 2010

Thad Allen: Good. Thank you. This morning I would like to focus on source control that’s happening at the well head in relation to both containment and the relief wells, and then the implications of the weather predictions that have been broadcasted for the last 24 to 48 hours about the tropical depression that’s in the vicinity of Puerto Rico this morning.

First of all, by way of process, you’ll see at mid-day – I sent a letter to Bob Dudley, the chief managing director of BP. I authorized BP to – I authorized BP to continue for the next 24 hours a well integrity test, but I also asked them that, given the potential for a tropical storm that could enter the Gulf of Mexico in the next 48 hours or so, to provide me an assessment of potential impacts regarding source control operations and other options to mitigate impacts of the weather. And I asked to have that no later than 8 this morning. That was actually delivered last night.

Over the night and through this morning, our science team in Houston has been talking with the BP folks regarding the various scenarios that might play out and the issues associated with the current lines of operation. I’m going to go through these each individually, and I’d be glad to take any questions you have for me after that.

First of all, just to remind you of some broad principles associated with severe weather that we’ve used as planning parameters throughout this hurricane season. As a general rule, we like to see vessels secured at a (departing) location prior to the arrival of tropical storm conditions at the sight. We have generally said that’s 120 hour threshold, but that is dependent on the storm track and the predictions by NOAA, who we are in close contact with.

Another thing to remember is we are in the process of trying to finish the relief wells and also have been assessing the feasibility and the efficacy of a static killer pumping mud down from the top. I’d like to give you the sequencing under which this would have to occur and explain that to you.

We believe that we should not start the static kill operation until we have installed the last liner run in the bottom of the relief well. And just to explain this, the relief well bore has been drilled, but the last final section that we want to reinforce with pipe needs to be done before we can begin the actual interception of the well. And that’s called running a casing line or basically a hollow steel pipe that reinforces a well bore.

Right now that well bore is open and does not have the casing in it. And it is not very far away from a place that we had concerns about regarding well integrity. And we did not want to run the risk of starting the static kill procedure, put pressure on the well, while we were in the proximity of a relief well that did not have the reinforcement of the casing.

So for that reason, the sequencing will be we have to have the casing line run first on the relief well before we would attempt a static top kill.

The other thing we want to understand is if for some reason we have to evacuate the area, we want to make sure that we optimize the amount of monitoring that we can do up to the time when we have to have vessels leave. This would include seismic monitoring, acoustic monitoring, and visual monitoring with ROVs. To that end, we are working with BP right now to understand the contingencies that would be associated with that.

As we have said before, if we have to evacuate the area to move off the area and then come back and redeploy, we can be looking at 10 to 14 day gaps in whatever our lines of operations are, whether it’s containment or actually proceeding with the drilling rig. So this is a significant issue of related weather driving in our lines of operation.

We are in discussion right now. There’ll be a principals call later on today among the cabinet officers that are involved and myself, and there’ll be briefings up to the White House later on today as we look at decision points that we’ll have to reach over the next 24 hours.

We are also mindful that there is a surveillance flight being flown into that depression today by NOAA that will give us some more information on the weather as we move forward.

If there is no impact of the weather, in other words if the path of the storm doesn’t appear to create impacts, you know, and we are free to go, we would go ahead and proceed with the well casing. And then that would be followed by making sure that it is cemented in and it is in place and securing the well bore.

At that point we could proceed to the static kill or the mud being (packed) in the top, if that is approved. And again, all those remaining options on the table are being discussed by our science team with BP in Houston as we speak.

With that, I’d be glad to take your questions.

Operator: Again, if you would like to ask a question, please press star one on your telephone keypad. We will pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster.

Your first question comes from the line of Kristen Hays from Reuters.

Kristen Hays: Yes. Good morning, Admiral. Have you extended the test again for another 24 hours?

Thad Allen: We’re not to that decision threshold. That’s being discussed as well. We will have a call mid-day with the principals, and we’ll make that decision and move ahead. I would tell you this, though, that the seismic testing, the acoustic testing, and the response of BP to anomalies that we’ve seen indicates that they’re in compliance.

But we will go through the review process and make an announcement later on today.

Kristen Hays: OK. Thank you.

Thad Allen: Yes.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Colleen Long of the Associated Press.

Colleen Long: Hi, Admiral. If weather becomes an issue, is it – did you know enough about the integrity of the well that you can say if the cap would be left on? What would happen if we had to you know if you had to pull ships out of the way in order to you know get out of the way of the weather?

Thad Allen: No, it’s an excellent question. Our teams are also, in addition to dealing with the casing and the static kill—they’re also looking at the status of the wellhead itself if we have to evacuate it.

We believe – and let me lay off the background for you. As the vessels would slowly leave to exit the area, not be subjected to the storm, vessels that would be the last to leave that can move the quickest are the vessels that operate with the ROVs that do the surveillance. So if we had to leave the well capped and unattended right now, we’d probably be looking at a gap of three to four days where we would not have surveillance on scene.

So for that matter, the folks that are meeting in Houston this morning are discussing the impacts and the various options we may have, anywhere from leaving the cap in place knowing it’ll be unattended from three to four days to the risk mitigation measures, if there’s any other way we could do surveillance, or it would be in the best interest to reduce the pressure in the well by venting some of the hydrocarbons out into the environment during that three to four day period so that we would make sure that there was less risk to the wellhead.

As we have stated clearly from the start of the well integrity test, the pressure continues to rise about one pound per hour. It’s following a chart or a pattern that would indicate that the well has integrity, but the low pressure readings have created the dilemma whether or not we have a well depletion issue or there is a leak down there.

So this is necessarily going to be a judgment call based on the risks associated with the science team, and that will be discussed midday as well.

Colleen Long: OK. Thank you.

Thad Allen: Yes.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Vivian Kuo of CNN.

Vivian Kuo: …you. But if the casing is supposed to be set by today and tomorrow, we could potentially see – and again, if it’s approved – an implementation of the static kill maybe by this weekend. Is that right?

Thad Allen: That’s correct. Based on the timeline once the casing is in place to protect the well bore from any interference with the static kill, we could potentially proceed. Again, but that will be taken after we have a discussion with the science team later today, and we’ll look what our options are.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of David Dishneau of the Associated Press.

David Dishneau: Just to clarify, did you say that if weather becomes a factor then plans could be delayed 10 to 14 days?

Thad Allen: That’s correct. If we have to evacuate the scene, we’ve always known, even when we were in a containment process, whatever operations that are going on out there, some of these vessels move very, very slowly so you need time to have them disassociate themselves from the mechanical structures they’re involved in and have at least 24 hours to exit the scene.

And again, some of these vessels only go four or five knots because they’re not intended to go at great speeds. And we’ve always said we need 120 hours in advance to be able to start redeploying them and then the total time off-scene would be anywhere between 10 and 14 days. That is the longest case scenario. We are evaluating whether or not we will have to do that based on the storm track.

And the results of the recognizance aircraft being flown today will be very important.

David Dishneau: So that means you would have to suspend work on the relief well as well? And could you give us some specifics on the relief well, how far it is from the problem well?

Thad Allen: Yes. We would have – any operations out there would have to be suspended, whether it was containment or the relief well. One of the reasons the casing is so important in the relief well right now is that horizontally we are between four and five feet away from the Macondo well. And we are generally in the vicinity where, if there was going to be a well integrity issue, it might be in that area of the Macondo well.

So the reason they want the casing in place before they do the static kill is that it will minimize the chance there could be an impact on the relief well when they do the static kill. For that reason, the casing has to go in first. And if we are forced to move off the site because of weather, the entire operation – including the last piece of the relief well which is laying that last casing in – could be delayed 10 to 14 days.

David Dishneau: Thank you.

Operator: Your next call comes from the line of Tom Fowler from Houston Chronicle.

Tom Fowler: Thank you. Good morning. Just wanted to clarify. So were you saying that for now while the weather situation is still being assessed, you’re, sort of the relief well, the next step of putting the casing in, is on hold?

And also wanted to – if you could clarify what could happen by this weekend because I was reading some reports that made it sound like the relief well was actually going to – could do an intercept by this weekend. But it sounds like you’re saying that you could just have the relief well where you want it in order to do the static kill by this weekend. Could you clarify that?

Thad Allen: The latter is correct. Once the casing is in place, the static kill could proceed by this weekend. What we have to do, once the casing is in place there are cements that have to harden, and it’s five to seven days before we then will begin to drill into the annulus.

So just to give you a sequence, the casing is in place. If we are going to attempt the static kill, we would do that and that could happen within about 48 hours. And then from five to seven days after placing the casing, we would be in a position to actually drill into the annulus and begin the process of the bottom kill.

Is that responsive?

Tom Fowler: Yes. I believe so. And but for right now in terms of starting the process of letting that last casing on the relief well, you’re sort of waiting for the next weather assessment before you move forward. Is that right?

Thad Allen: What we have done is we’ve placed a device into the relief well, called a packer, which is a device that is sent down into the well, the last piece of casing and then it expands and basically seals it off. It’s a sub sea containment device that’s – and we pulled the drill string back. We haven’t completely stopped operations on the relief well, but we’ve put this basically this plugging device in to hold what we’ve got right now pending the decision on whether or not we can remain on scene. If we remain on scene, we’ll remove that device and go on and proceed to lay the casing.

Tom Fowler: OK. Thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Dori Smith of Talk Nation.

Dori Smith: …to what the percentage of oil versus methane is in any of the leaks that have been identified, either on the cap area of the well or in any plumes nearby within the radius that you’ve been looking at, concerned, of course, about the pressure?

Thad Allen: We believe, especially around the current blowout preventer the capping stack that it is a mixture of the hydrocarbon column itself, which would be some mixture of oil, some natural gas, and some water. The existence of hydrates on the blowout preventer and the capping stack is indeed that there is gas there because the gas combined with the cold water and pressure is what produces hydrates. So there is some amount of methane gas in that.

The exact percentages, we have taken samples and they’re being analyzed ashore. Some samples done on scene based on the samples that were taken in around the wellhead indicated there was about 16 percent methane, but that needs to be validated by a shore test.

Dori Smith: And can you finally, on follow up, tell us is – has BP or has anyone identified new plumes or new leaks beyond what were already being studied in the vicinity?

Thad Allen: What we have asked BP to do is actually number these events so we can follow them. And I can take you through the general grouping of them. On the 17th of July, that was the event that we noted that was three kilometers southwest of the wellhead that we now have attributed to be in place before this started, probably attributable to another well.

Then we had a series of anomalies that were detected on the 18th of July. And these are just differences in density and return on both the seismic and the acoustic sensors. They were investigated with ROVs. They thought there might be some plumes. There were some gas bubbles brewing and they were followed up with ROVs. There were no other indications observed, and we closed out on those.

Following that, on the 19th is when we started to observe the bubbles around the current wellhead in the blowout preventer. Those have already been reported. And these are emanated from the wellhead itself through gaskets and seals that happen to be leaking.

And finally, we found another leak just yesterday in the BOP in the annular preventer. That’s the upper part of the BOP or the lower marine riser package. And that’s attributed to a leak in a gasket as well.

I think what you’re generally starting to see is from the blowout preventer—it’s been down there a long time under a lot of stress. And just like any other piece of equipment, we’re starting to see some small leaks around it. But that’s been it so far.

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

Operator: OK. Your next question comes from the line of Jamie Burch of WKRG.

Jamie Burch: Admiral, I just wanted to ask, we’ve been hearing reports that the Vessels of Opportunity program is being deactivated because of concerns of what they’re calling a tropical storm, but right now it’s just a tropical depression, not in the Gulf. Is there any truth to that? And if so, why so early?

Thad Allen: I don’t believe we’re deactivating any Vessels of Opportunity because of weather right now. However, I will say this, local weather conditions – and they’re starting to get choppy out there right now. I think they’re looking at four to six foot seas at the wellhead itself.

There are conditions just by local weather, whether they’re thunderstorms or fronts passing through, that would make it difficult for Vessels of Opportunity to operate. And that’s almost a day-to-day tactical situation that would be made by our commanders on the ground.

But as it relates to this current tropical depression, there have been no decisions on Vessels of Opportunity related to that. It would be more local weather conditions.

The other issue is we’re starting to have trouble finding oil. We’ve had skimmers out there on the wellhead site for a number of days now, as many as 50 a day out there. And our skimmer capacity now is over 750, so we’ve got a lot of skimmers that are operating out there. And what we’re finding is that we’re really having to search for the oil in some cases.

But this is also allowing us some time to get the vessels in, get them fixed, get our boom fixed and redeploy and get ready if we’re going to have another event, and also continue to work on a short cleanup in the marshes.

Megan Moloney: That concludes our conference call today. Thank you, everyone, for joining us.

Operator: You may now disconnect.


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