Transcript of Thad Allen's July 22 press briefing on the BP oil spill

This is the transcript of national incident Commander Thad Allen's daily briefing with reporters on the Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. The transcript was distributed by the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center. Allen briefed by telephone.

July 22, 2010

2:15 p.m. CDT

Thad Allen: Thank you, Megan. As Megan stated we just finished a visit to our forward staging area in Theodore, Alabama which is south of Mobile on the west side of Mobile Bay. And this is the area where we do all of our regional staging of boom, we repair boom, we decontaminate it, we bring waste oil in, we do training and generally support our operations in the Gulf area.

I briefed the vice president on the current status of what's going on offshore. I'll talk about that in a minute. I was also accompanied by Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator. And we were there as the vice president announced there would be an opening of the fishing areas in the Gulf to expand by 25,000 square miles the area of fishing that's available.

Just a quick update on where we're at regarding what's going on at the well. As you know the projected storm track of the tropical depression that was originally yesterday forecasted to come ashore somewhere around Miami is going further south now.

There is a variety of tracks that would take it near or over the well site itself. We're under the assumption that somewhere very early in the morning on Saturday we could see storm force winds at the well site.

And we think the storm passing over will probably be about 24 hours in duration. During that time it's very possible we could have wave heights that would exceed the operational envelope for all platforms. So while this is not a hurricane it's a storm that will have probably some significant impact so we're taking appropriate cautions related to that.

And we are in constant contact with BP and their subcontractors who are operating vessels out there, our science team met with BP this morning and we had a principle's discussion at 1:30 among the administration on our way forward.

We believe that somewhere around 8:00 o'clock tonight we'll be at a decision threshold regarding most specifically Development Driller II and Development Driller III that are doing the relief wells and a decision regarding their unhooking on their current operations and making preparations to leave should that be necessary.

In advance of that Development Driller III has withdrawn their drill string back from where they were at and they've put in a subsea containment device that basically holds the integrity of the relief well.

And they are now just waiting better predictions on the track of the storm and a final decision of whether or not the threshold would be required for them to disconnect. Once the Development Driller III would disconnect, in other words that would basically remove the riser pipe from the lower marine riser package on their blowout preventer for the relief well.

They then would have to bring that riser package up. That would take somewhere between 8 to 12 hours. Through that entire time period we would be watching the weather very closely and if it looked like the storm has passed or conditions would allow us to resume the relief well we will do that.

Just to give you an update of where we are at in the process of the relief well prior to the preparations being made for a potential detachment cause by the weather, we are prepared to lay the last casing run which was the steel pipe to reinforce the relief well. That would be in advance of us drilling into the annulus to begin the bottom kill of the well.

That process – putting the casing in would take about 48 hours but it would take five to seven days for the cement around it to dry so we could proceed with the relief well itself. The intentional – the plan after that and we've asked BP for more specific details once the casing is in place and we know we have well integrity on the relief well we will then consider starting a – the static test that, excuse me, the static containment of the well by pumping mud in through the top.

We have a pressure head up there that would help us now fill the top part of the well with mud. That would actually ultimately enhance the relief well effort that would take place five to seven days later.

Obviously that entire process now will be offset by whatever days we lose if we have to detach and move off scene. We will not know what that is until we get more weather data later on today and reach that decision threshold on whether or not we will detach Development Driller III.

In regards to containment we have made a lot of success over the last six days in establishing a process for identifying anomalies either seismic, acoustic or visual anomalies to test – to actually go out and follow up on those anomalies through ROVs or additional seismic or acoustic runs.

We are satisfied that we have a process now that is allowing us to eliminate anomalies. It would indicate there might some kind of an indication of a problem with well integrity and we are satisfied to continue on a daily monitoring program regarding seismic, acoustic, geophones, hydrophones and visual inspection by our ROVs.

They will continue to allow us to detect anomalies and then follow up on them to make sure we're retaining well integrity. Based on the recommendation of Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, and the science team we have determined that if we have to evacuate the site we are prepared to leave the well capped.

We will attempt to do ROV monitoring as long as we can. We think we can probably keep (inaudible) on scene. And depending on the sea state, if we do have to evacuate, we are prepared at this point to cap the well and we will get ROVs back out as soon as we can to conduct surveillance.

So just to summarize we are making preparations in the event the weather would force us to move the drilling rigs. Development Driller III, which is really the primary relief well has placed a subsea containment device into the well to protect it, has withdrawn their drill string and are holding that particular position right now pending an evaluation of weather later on today. And somewhere around 8:00 o'clock tonight a decision will be made on whether or not they need to detach.

Regarding the cap itself we will continue to have daily meetings on monitoring protocols as we continue to rule out any anomalies that we detect that might be an indication of well integrity. It is our intention right now to proceed with the well integrity tests.

And I have given authorization to BP to continue those as long as they meet the protocol. So we will no longer give them a daily authorization to proceed. They can proceed as long as the protocols are met and we're able to respond and follow up to anomalies. And with that I'd be glad to take your questions.

Operator: At this time if you would like to ask a question please press star one on your telephone keypad. Again that's star one to ask any questions. We'll pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster.

Again for any questions press star one. We'll pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster.

Megan Moloney: Operator, at this time are we showing any questions?

Operator: We're queuing the questions now.

Megan Moloney: Thank you.

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

Kristen Hays: Yes, hello, Admiral. I'm wondering – regarding what you said about detaching all the piping and stuff for the DD3, when would you make the decision that everything will be evacuated prior to high seas?

And at what level do the seas need to be for that to happen?

Thad Allen: Well it's a little complicated but let me go over it. Every one of the platforms that's out there has a different threshold on when they would leave. Some of them it's only a matter of hours if they can move fast enough and there is nothing inhibiting them from leaving when they need to.

The most complicated vessels to redeploy are the drilling rigs, especially the drilling rigs that have a riser connected to a lower marine riser package. For that reason, as we get closer to a time when we can expect those winds, even though there’s still an uncertainty cone regarding the track of the storm, we would start making preparations to be able to disconnect, and keep on a timeline when we would expect those winds to show up, which would right now, we believe, could be Saturday morning.

So, with that in mind the Development Driller has put a subsea containment device into the well bore to make sure they maintain the integrity and there’s no problem. They’ve withdrawn the drill string back about 1,000 feet. The next thing would be to withdraw the drill string completely, and then be in a position, if the decision was made later on this evening, they would detach the riser pipe from the lower marine riser package which sits on top of the blowout preventer.

At that point it would probably take 8 to 12 hours to bring that riser pipe up and then disconnect it in sections. Which are anywhere, depending on the type of riser, could be 40 to 60 feet long in sections, the entire length of the riser pipe. They would have to do that before they would be able to transit them because it’s hard to maneuver the vessel with that amount of pipe below it. So, what you do is you start making preparations to leave if you have to in advance, so when you hit the point and you’re directed to go you’re not precluded from leaving at that time.

Was that responsive?

Kristen Hays: Yes, sir but I’m just a little confused. Are you talking about the Helix or the Q4000 or the DD3?

Male: Oh, well the one we have to start earliest on is the Development Driller III. If you’re talking after that, then Helix – what I have is a grid, it’s actually a spreadsheet that shows the various vessels, the speed of advance and the sea state they can tolerate. They would all have to leave at different times. To try to go through every one of them right now would be fairly voluminous. If you like, we can try to make a summary of that and give it to you?

Kristen Hays: OK. That would be great. Thank you.

Male: OK. Next question.

Operator: Our next question comes from the line of Susan Daker with the Dow Jones Newswires.

Susan Daker: Hi Admiral. I’m just curious. What do you guys need to see tonight in terms of the forecast to decide whether to evacuate or not?

Thad Allen: Well, usually it’s the presence of storm when it becomes a tropical storm, and that’s when it exceeds 39 miles an hour wind. Just to give you the band – a tropical storm, short of a hurricane, has winds that are at least 39 but less than 75 miles an hour. We’re in the band where there’s a probability this could become a tropical storm rather than a tropical depression.

So, the question is, looking at the forecast, the track of the tropical storm, and then where it will come in relation to the wellhead and when we can anticipate those winds to exceed 39 miles an hour. That is the calculus that’s going on right now that will lead to that decision point later on this evening. Was that responsive?

Susan Daker: That was great. Thank you very much.

Operator: Our next question comes from the line of David Mattingly with CNN.

David Mattingly: Admiral, what was it that finally gave you the confidence in this well to feel like you could go off and leave it capped?

Thad Allen: It was a combination of things, and I have to give a tremendous shout out to Secretary Chu and the science team for methodically, everyday, twice a day sitting down with the seismic acoustical data, the anomalies that were detected, having a coordinated way to send ROVs out there to rule out the fact that they might be indicative of a well integrity issue.

Growing confidence in the data we have. The repetition of the data acquisition. These are running numerous lines, both seismic and acoustic sensors over the well site, creating, if you will – we’re starting to create almost a 3D model of what the formation around that well looks like. That allows us to rule out potential sources or indications there might be a leak.

And I would say the confidence and the credibility on both sides that sit down and have this discussion, look at the data and analyze it, and both understand it from the same perspective concerning containment well integrity, has improved dramatically over the last three or four days to the point where we feel comfortable, as long as they continue to adhere to the monitoring protocols and follow up.

For instance, we have a standard that within four hours after an anomaly we will put an ROV out there, we will test it, we will get additional information so we can understand and then we collectively make a determination on whether or not it’s consequential to well integrity and then we can rule it out. That is then logged and we know that that event has occurred and we can start looking for others.

What we’re slowly doing is understanding the neighborhood, creating a 3D model of the neighborhood. And where there are existing leaks – like the one that’s three kilometers to the southwest – know what it’s attributed to and basically have a joint understanding of the area around the well.

Operator: Our next question comes from the line of Kate Spinner with Sarasota Harold.

Kate Spinner: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I’m wondering if any of you know how much oil is still out there and where the storm is likely to bring it.

Thad Allen: That’s a good question. As you know when we remove the top hat device and put the cap on, there was a period of time where we had unabated – with the exception of what we were producing through the Q4000 and the Helix Producer – we were producing oil out there.

We actually assembled an armada of off shore skimmers. Any particular day, 40 to 50 off shore heavy duty skimmers were working out there. We’re actually getting to the point right now where we are having to look to find the oil that’s out there because we really put everything we had on it because we knew we were in a period of vulnerability in putting the cap on. We’re in a period now of over six days where no oil has been released into the environment.

So, we’re trying to shift our efforts to make sure that we’re attacking the shoreline and there off shore as much as we can. We will do that, consistent with the weather predictions, which at some point are probably going to force us off the water because there’s only a certain amount of a weather window that the skimmers can operate in. But in general, there’s a significant reduction in the amount of oil on the surface and I think we’ve done a pretty successful job at going at the oil that was released prior to the cap being put on.

Kate Spinner: OK. So, you don’t expect any more oil to be making landfall?

Thad Allen: Well, there’s still oil out there. The biggest problem is, and I’ve said this throughout the life cycle of the event, we don’t have a large monolithic spill, we have hundreds of thousands of patches of oil and some of them aren’t really conducive to the skimming capability. Some of it’s weathered and can’t be burned.

So, I’m not saying there’s no oil out there. There are patches of oil, but they’re not large amounts of oil where we can put skimmers on it and effectively use them. Plus, weather is going to start to deteriorate. But there is oil out there and we need to figure out with the storm coming in, what is going to be the implications of that.

It could be that some oil will be dispersed more rapidly because of the emulsification that will take place because of the movement of the water itself. We have the prospect that some of this oil could be driven inland into the marsh areas as some of it did when Alex passed by.

Kate Spinner: OK. Thanks.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of (Jeremy Diesel) with (Thow Television).

(Jeremy Diesel): Admiral, if you could just sort of elaborate for me. We’re not talking just about a single storm threat at this point. We're talking about potentially kind of a double threat back to back.

How does that impact how you have to try to plan for it specifically trying to plan moving back into the well area with potentially another storm right behind it?

Thad Allen: Well, we have to continually watch the forecasts and the operating parameters and again as I indicated some of these vessels can operate in greater sea states. In general, the last vessel to leave out there will be the vessel that will be working with ROVs that are doing surveillance on the well cap itself.

And that’s good because we want to have as much surveillance and if for some reason the sea states doesn’t rise to the level they would have to leave, it is possible we could have a vessel out there with an ROV looking at it the entire event, although we are prepared and understand that we may have to leave the well unsurveiled.

At that point it will be a matter of predicating when the winds will reach a certain height and it could be we're in a waiting period if we have to detach and before we can come back in.

Our number one desire right now though is to lay the casing and then do the hydrostatic injection of mud from the top and then go for this tar– the bottom kill actually as soon as we can and we're going to be dependent on the weather to do that.

(Jeremy Diesel): What is that sea state for those last ships?

Thad Allen: Well it varies. Again, we'll put that out for everybody. I think if you're talking about the ROV tenders out there, they can operate in excess of 12 to 15 feet but not much beyond that.

And they would have to exit at some point. So we could leave them out there and if for some reason the seas weren’t generated obviously they can remain on scene and still do surveillance but I'll give you that as interim answer subject to let me – I've a got a huge spreadsheet and all the capabilities of the vessels and we'll clarify that for you.

Female: (Inaudible).

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Larry Aberson with the National Public Radio.

Larry Aberson: Hi, if you can just clarify, can you tell us if you were unable to have any support vessels out there or any remote vehicles, would you then go back to the possibility of having to remove the cap or are you saying even then, even without support, you could keep cap in place.

Thad Allen: A decision has been made to leave the cap on even if the well is unattended.

Larry Aberson: OK and so that’s just completely ruled out. You have no possibility even under the worse storm that you would have to do that.

Thad Allen: Based on the parameters associated with this storm and what we know about it—and there is no indication I believe at this time, it will become a hurricane; it will be a tropical storm—we had made the determination that it is in the best interests to leave the well capped and we will conduct surveillance to the extent that we can but if we cannot we are prepared to leave the well unattended during this particular event.

That doesn’t mean we won't re-assess it if we have a new event.

Larry Aberson: Thank you.

Megan Moloney: Operator, at this point, we'll take our final call, please.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Jim Paulson with Bloomberg News.

Jim Paulson: Admiral, when will you be able to say more about what the preparations are along the shoreline. Obviously you’ve got to pull people out or do you have to pull people out ahead of a storm with the forecast you’ve got? Can they stay and try to do some skimming right along the shoreline?

Thad Allen: Well, potentially with this not being a hurricane, we may not have to evacuate personnel as we would if there was a regular hurricane. Our plan if we knew that a hurricane was coming would be to evacuate our personnel before the public evacuated so there wouldn’t be a mix of what we're trying to do and directing the local populus.

What we are doing is taking equipment that is currently not deployed that we have staged in low lying areas. We want to move that inland to protect it. So for instance, if we think there is going to be—its not a hurricane but there is going to be a storm surge that could threaten to flood low lying areas—it wouldn’t make sense to leave skimming and boom equipment where it might be put at risk.

So what we're doing is we're redeploying that inland to make sure that we have the equipment available as soon as the storm passes to get back out there and continue our long-term relief effort.

Megan Moloney: Thank you. At this – with this we conclude today's briefing. Thank you. Bye now.

Operator: This concludes today's conference call. You may now disconnect.


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