Transcript of Adm. Thad Allen's July 28 briefing on the BP oil disaster

This is the transcript of Adm. Thad Allen's press briefing on the Deepwater Horizon oiol catastrophe for Wednesday, July 28. Allen was joined by Read Adm. Paul Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator. The transcript was distributed by the Deepwater Hoirzon Incident Joint Information Center.

July 28, 2010

3:30 p.m. CDT

Admiral Allen: Thank you, Megan. Good afternoon. I'm here with Admiral Paul Zukunft, who is the unified area commander for the response. I'm going to give a quick update on source control issues at the well site and talk about some intended meetings we're going to hold over the next 24 hours here in New Orleans.

Admiral Zukunft will then give an operational update, and we'll be glad to answer any questions you might have for us.

Out at the wellhead, things continue to be stable. The capping stack continues to exhibit all the indications of well integrity. The pressure is up to 6,942 PSI and continues to rise slowly and keeping with the profile that would indicate well integrity.

Yesterday, we were able to run three different seismic tracks and also do acoustics monitoring out there. We'll continue to do that. This, again, is helping us basically create a picture of the bottom, if you will, and the formations around there to make sure there's no breach of integrity or any formations or there might be hydrocarbons there, also looking for any indication of seepage, methane gas, and so forth.

So far, we have found no anomalies that we haven't been able to clear up, and it looks like everything's in good shape out there.

Regarding the real important area where we're working on right now—and that's getting the Development Driller 3 re-engaged and finishing out the relief well so we can move forward on that. They removed the subsea containment device—which they call a packer—that was put in to protect the well while they evacuated the site before of the severe weather.

After that is done, they will run another drill string clear to the bottom of the relief well, and then they're going to flush the entire wellbore out to make sure there's no particles or anything—sediment from the formation. When that is done, they will be ready then to put the casing pipe in. The casing pipe is the last structural member that will go into the relief well and cement that in place.

Once that is done, that will be the cue to start the static or the top kill we've talked about, which will happen next week. Following that—then we'll be in a position, once the cement dries, to go ahead and drill into the annulus and begin the bottom kill sequence of events as I've briefed before.

We continue to stay in close coordination and our science team in Houston is following all of the various actions that are needed to do that. The Q4000, which will be doing the mud and the cement injection into the static—for the static kill is on scene. They're laying pipe, so they'll be ready to go next week, as well.

With that, I'll pass—oh, one other item.

One of the reasons I'm in New Orleans this week is to meet with all the parish presidents in the area, and I will do that tomorrow. Among other things we're going to talk about are the ongoing response operations, the resource status in Louisiana regarding critical resources such as booms, skimmers, and so forth—to talk about the source control issues that I just briefed you on and give them an updated status, and talk about our current response structure and then go over some of the hurricane preps we did last week—see what we can learn from that, talk about vessel of opportunity management, some other things that are important to the parish presidents, and we look forward to doing that.

With that, Paul, please give us an update there.

Admiral Zukunft: Thank you, Admiral.

Today is the 100th day since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. And as you can see from your left to right, you know, that was the situation 100 days ago.

As you—again, further to—to your right, you'll see how the spill has evolved. It's been a very dynamic process over these 100 days. And so you look to the far right, and that is the situation where we have today. It's an area that I've overflown extensively.

We're in the 13th day since we've had a temporary shut-in of this well. And so what we see right now are light bands of oil. We're running over 122 flights in a very concentrated area and detecting very little recoverable oil.

But I want to reiterate, I still have over 811 skimmers, numerous vessels of opportunity, 11 million feet of boom. And if you look at the depiction at the far right, what you'll see is there's very little evidence of oil once you get to the east of Mobile Bay.

And so when I look at that 11 million feet of boom—if we were to pull 60 miles of boom each day, should we get to the next phase of this operation, we would be Labor Day and still pulling 60 miles of boom.

The only reason I want to bring that up is, each day the Gulf of Mexico, those temperatures go up, and we're getting deeper and deeper into hurricane season, the environmental sensitive areas that this boom is designed to protect—and I've said this before—in kind of a storm surge, that boom is going to rise up on the surge, and that is going to ride over the marsh. It will scour it, and then it's—much of this is hard plastic, and will remain in place, will not biodegrade.

So we're doing a lot of outreach right now with our partners in Florida and Alabama, Mississippi—some of the far reaches of where the oil is right now, and we're working on a boom recovery strategy which will require yet another all-hands-on-deck effort—especially by our vessels of opportunity.

But I would characterize this as the first 100 days. There's a lot of work in front of us. Until we have a permanent well kill, I have every skimmer available, I have every responder, every vessel of opportunity available should this very dynamic evolution—this operation, change on a moment's notice, we are there to respond.

Finally, we recognized, you know, one of our heroes who was involved is—as you look to what happened on August 20th, that was Chief Survival Technician (Kurt Peterson) who was involved in a dramatic search-and-rescue, triaged 115 survivors, personally involved in saving 17 others.

But also want to call out the offshore supply vessel, the Damon Bankston. They were the ones right at the foot of those flames, and certainly the work that they did was nothing less than heroic. And today is a day to pay tribute to all of those people who put themselves at risk to save during this search-and-rescue phase of this operation countless lives.

And each and every one of us do share in the loss of those 11 crewmembers who were recognized today, as well.

With that, we'd like to open it up to any of your questions.

Q: Every day you learned something new, every single day—you know, every single day you've learned something new with this oil spill clean-up. What sort of things are you going to be continuing to implement? I mean—what have you learned for the next 100 days?

Admiral Zukunft: Well, we're not out of the woods yet. We still—a permanent kill. What we recognize is, it requires—you know, not just whole-of-government, it requires private industry. The response organizations that we have on a national basis, we've reached out and have reached assistance from over 22 foreign nations.

So what we've recognized—and certainly the Coast Guard can't do this alone—I rely upon approximately 1,000 other organizations that comprise this 40,000-plus response organization at our disposal.

And so what it does require, first and foremost, is that we continue to exercise our national contingency plans. When we see the first shot of battle—in this case, the first oil washing ashore —it—we respond much differently than we do in an exercise environment.

So we need to continue to build out our national contingency plan. We need to continue to exercise, and we need to involve both private industry—it's local, it's federal, it's state, and it's international. And so that's been a big learning lesson from this spill.

Q: My question is for Admiral Allen, (Harry Webber) from Associated Press. Everyone is full-steam ahead on this static kill and relief well bottom kill. But what are the odds, in your mind, that this will work to plug the well for good? Is it foolproof in your mind? Or is it possible we will still be without a resolution after the mud is pumped in?

Admiral Allen: Well, the sequence of events are going to allow us ascertain the exact status of the wellbore. One of the things that, as you know, has been a subject of a lot of controversy or discussion, I would say—maybe not controversy, but discussion, spirited discussion among the science team, BP engineers, and so forth—is why the pressure was so low when we capped the well itself, down in the 6,000 range.

The competing theories from that are we have depletion in the reservoir that caused the pressure to be lower or there could potentially be a leak down there.

One of the things we're going to find out when we start to put the mud in for the static kill—if there's a precipitous drop in pressure, we'll know we have a well integrity issue at that point. If there is not, and we fill that well with mud right away, and it holds pressure, I think we'll know a lot more about the condition of the well.

Once we know that, I think we're in pretty good shape regarding—we'll at that point have filled the top of the well with mud and cement. And then the remainder will be to do it from the bottom up, once we drill into the annulus.

So I think, to the extent there is uncertainty related to the well integrity, we will know that, and that's what the static kill will tell us. It increases the effectiveness of the bottom kill, but also improves the probability we can kill it, and it gives us more information about well integrity.

Q: I mean, if I could just follow up, is this foolproof? I mean, is this going to work? Or is there a chance that this won't work and you might have to do something else?

Admiral Allen: Well, in the event that there's a low probability/high consequence outcome, we have the second well drilled. And there are backup plans to actually use a piping system to take the product and actually push it over to wells that have been depleted.

So we have always asked for a backup plan to the backup plan from BP, and they provided that. But this relief well, while it is deep, is something that has been done before. The technologies that we employed are not novel, but obviously the depth is a challenge here, but we are optimistic that we'll get this thing done.

Q: (Jamie Tarabe) from NPR. I actually have a question for both of you gentlemen. Considering the amount of oil that is now—albeit it's lessened to a—and, obviously, you've seen all the news reports that it's dissipating—it's rapidly disappearing, is what everyone is saying—do you feel like we've turned the corner or, as you say, it could change again at a moment's notice if the cap comes unstuck or something happens?

And I also just have one more question about the bottom kill. From my very basic understanding, it's you drill down, and you drill across, and you hit the well, the Deepwater Horizon well, right? Or you just—you drill down, and you drill across through the earth?

Admiral Allen: It's not quite that simple, but I can explain it.

Q: So—but my understanding is that they obviously did the same thing in Australia with the Montara well, and they tried it several times in several weeks before it actually succeeded. So how—I mean, what's your sort of—do you expect the same sort of the—the probability of success to be the same sort of thing as in their experience?

Admiral Allen: Yes, let me answer the second question first. Once we run that final casing string, at that point, we will have casing pipe all the way down the relief well. At that point—at the end there, we will be about four-and-a-half feet away from the Macondo well and about 100 feet above the entry point, OK?

And so what they're going to do is, they will very carefully—in probably 20- to 25-foot increments—drill down and then put what they call a ranging tool in that senses the magnetic field of the other pipe and very, very carefully, over a series of days, slowly close in to where they're ready to actually drill into the annulus.

So this is done with very, very precise measurements, because ultimately they're going to intersect that pipe down there, which is seven inches in diameter. And this has been done before.

Again, it's not novel technology. And the way they sense the magnetic field is very, very accurate, and that's the reason they take it in very slow steps—so those last 100 feet could take five to six days to actually get that done, but that will start once the casing's in place.

Q: (inaudible)

Admiral Allen: Well, there has been expansive consultation about this with the science team—with industry. They've consulted (inaudible) both the BP engineers and our science team, yes.

Regarding the oil, there are a lot of things that impact oil when it's on the surface, and there's a lot of things we do to try and remove it. As you know, mechanical skimming is part of that. We did over 400 in situ burns. We applied dispersants. We are not doing that anymore, because there's not a need to do that, and there is evaporation, and then there's natural weathering of the oil.

And this varies with the type of oil and where you're at in the world. We happen to be in an area where there's high temperatures and optimal conditions environmentally. And I've discussed this with Jane Lubchenco, the director of NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] —where biodegradation is probably enhanced here in places where it wouldn't be, say, in Alaska or someplace else. What we don't know is the combination of all of that.

We are working right now—we're looking at all the indicators we have. We're looking at the estimates of how effective the dispersants were, the percentage of oil within the oily water that was skimmed, how effective that was, and we're putting together what we call an oil budget. And the next several days, our scientific team is going to be looking at that, because I think we're going to be in a position over the next few days to actually come out and say, "This is our rough estimate on the disposition of the oil, where we thought it went."

There was a lot of talk about, is the oil on the surface or not? We have a very aggressive program of testing hydrocarbons in the water column. That's happening under NOAA—working with a consortium of university science vessels around the gulf—and that will continue to basically slowly fill out what I would call an MRI of the gulf, where you take slices and look at the presence of hydrocarbons moving forward.

But we're in kind of a new area here where we've never had this amount of oil in the water before. And there's a great opportunity to learn a lot about the fate of oil in the water and exactly what Mother Nature does and how they interact with it. Or as Marcia McNutt down at U.S. Geological Survey says, what is the metabolic rate of the Earth to absorb oil? And I think we're in an area where we're going to learn a lot more than we knew before, and we're in the process of doing that.

Q: (inaudible)

Admiral Allen: Yes, well (inaudible) on the surface, as Admiral Zukunft has said. You know, we're having trouble finding patches of oil. That doesn't mean we're not going to stay prepared until this well is killed. We need to be prepared either to contain it or to respond to any oil that might be released should we have some low probability/high consequence outcome.

But the fact of the matter is—from our overflights and our surveillance—we're seeing less and less oil, and the oil that we do see is weathered, it's sheen, and sometimes it's not that effective to skim it. We find some places—off Grand Isle a couple of days ago, we saw a large patch. We were able to get out there and address it, and we'll continue to do that.

Q: (inaudible) on top of the water, though (inaudible) what can you do once it's dispersed, once it's in the water column? And then how much—you said (inaudible) skimmer boats are still available. I think (inaudible) skimming boats available. But are there—has this actual skimming been held off now? What other things are they stopping? Is there actually less money being used right now to take the oil off of the water?

Admiral Allen: I'll try and answer what I thought was the question. We are keeping all of our response assets online until this well is killed.

Q: But they're not actually skimming?

Admiral Allen: Where we find oil, we are skimming it. If not, they're on standby for reserve, because the well is not killed. There is a chance we could have a discharge. We want to make sure that we do not back off in our response posture, and we remain that way.

Q: Question for both gentlemen, if you can. There's been a mixture of fact and rumor that BP is going to let go a lot of people that have been working for them, people that were normally in the fishing industry and the boating industry. One, what have you heard about that from BP?

And, two, what is your advice as to how many people to keep after you get the information, just like you're saying in the next three days or so you should know? Could these people be used to collect the oil that is also sub-surface?

Admiral Allen: Well, I'm going to give you a two-part answer. I'll give you an overall answer from the national perspective and let Admiral Zukunft talk about locally.

One of the reasons we're here is to start a conversation with local leaders about how we transition from a response posture and then, once the well is killed, what remains to be done. Now, we know from when the oil first came ashore there was a latency period about four to six weeks before we started seeing beaches that were oiled, so we know for four to six weeks after the oil has stopped, there was a chance we'll still have oil coming ashore.

And though some of that oil is below the surface—it shows up in terms of tar balls or mats or paddies and things like that, and we know that that can happen, as well. So we need to continue the response until the well is killed. And then after the well is killed, we need to understand that four to six weeks after that we're probably still going to be seeing oil on beaches.

We've been able to take a lot of that off the water with the skimming armada we put out there when the well was open before the cap was put on. And we know there was less oil on the surface. But we need to continue to do that.

After that, we're going to have to figure out how to transition to where we don't need vessel skimming, but we need to be redeploying boom. There's going to be some other needs for vessels of opportunity. We're looking at with NOAA right now whether or not we can use vessels of opportunity to help them test for seafood. And we're going to be looking at that wide range of activities.

But sooner or later, we're going to have to size the fleet to where it matches what our requirements are. And how we do that, we need to involve local leaders in that discussion. And that's one of the reasons I'm down here, to start those discussions, and we will have very frank, open discussions about what the requirements are, what it is we can do, and we will be very transparent in how we do that.

Q: (inaudible)

Admiral Allen: Well, I'll be meeting with the parish presidents tomorrow. I think it's 10:45, and I will have a press event afterwards.

Got anything, Paul?

Admiral Zukunft: Yes, just to follow up on that—and that's the—for 100 days now, we've been adding boom, and to the point we now have 11 million feet of boom. And so, you know, the numbers are quite staggering. You know, we need to pull—you know, when we reach the next phase of this operation, you know, over 60 miles of boom, and you don't just pull the boom out of the water. It has to be decontaminated and then eventually either recycled or become solid waste.

So a very labor-intensive effort. And so I will certainly call upon our vessels of opportunity to be able to do just that.

Also, working very closely—I met yesterday with the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, so we can get these closed areas to fishing – to get those open and ensure that the food that is caught is safe to eat.

And we do anticipate in the very near term to start to see some of these state waters open and also working with the National Marine Fisheries Service to reopen those federal closures, as well. As you know, the vice president announced last week the reopening of roughly 26,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, which is about one-third of a closed area, but there's still two-thirds of that area that remains closed.

So as we look at vessels of opportunity, we really look at their livelihood and to ensure that they can return to that livelihood and then work with government, work with state officials, and most importantly, ensure that that seafood that is caught is safe for human consumption.

Megan Moloney: Operator, at this time, we're prepared to take questions from the phone, if you could please identify those questions as they come in.

Operator: You have a question from Kristen Hays with Reuters.

Q: Yes, hello, I guess I should say "Admirals" in plural. Admiral Allen, I just wanted to ask you, Bob Dudley said this morning that it is possible that as early as Monday or Tuesday the well could be killed with the static kill. Do you concur with that?

Admiral Allen: Well, I think we'll go a long way to shutting the well in. The well can only be killed from the bottom up, because you can't get to the annulus, which is the area from the casing pipe out to the wellbore, from the top.

So even if we were entirely successful in filling the well with mud and then cement from the static kill effort, we would still need to make sure that there was not oil coming up from the annulus, which is the area outside the pipe. So we will need the static kill and the bottom kill to be successful.

Q: OK, thank you.

Admiral Allen: Next question?

Operator: Your next question comes from Noah Brenner with Upstream.

Q: Thank you for taking my call. This is a question for Admiral Allen. I was wondering, is there any timeline to get a new flow rate estimate from the flow rate team or any plans for one? And when might we expect some refinement to those initial wide figures?

Admiral Allen: No particular timeline, but—and as I've said on several occasions, as we've refined the flow rate numbers—and as you know, most recently, that was a month or so ago when we established the 35,000 to 60,000 barrel range—I repeatedly challenged our science team to be able to look at all the data that's available.

We have data available from pressure readings when the stacking cap was put on. There's also a significant interest in trying to assess the total amount of oil from the oil budget and trying to reconcile between skimming, burning, dispersants, and evaporation, exactly what is that amount of oil that could be out there? And they are hard at work at doing that right now.

And in a short while, we'll be able to come out and actually give you a brief on that, but it's still a work in progress, and I wouldn't want to be presumptive on when they're going to be completed, but we are hard at work on that right now.

Operator: Your next question comes from (Tasha Fomenches) with Bloomberg News.

Q: Hi. Thank you for taking my question. I was wondering which part of that two operations—static kill and bottom kill—which part is the most risky and (inaudible) to the sea. Thank you.

Admiral Allen: If I understood, what is the most risk?

Megan Moloney: Could you please repeat your question?

Q: Sure. For the two operations that you plan over the next week, so the static kill and the bottom kill, which part of these operations is most risky, most dangerous?

Admiral Allen: OK, I think I understand. Well, I would put it another way. I think we're trying to mitigate risk in how we're doing this. If we were to—for instance, one of the reasons we want to run the casing line to the bottom of the current wellbore of the relief well is to make sure we've reinforced the relief well and that, in the process of the static kill, if for some reason we were to put pressure on either the casing or the wellbore and have a problem, what we discussed earlier, where there was a drop in pressure, that we wouldn't inadvertently impair the integrity of the relief well, which is of most importance.

So the sequencing is being done to reduce risk. And that's the casing is first, and then the static kill from the top is second. And then at that point, when we've done as much to the well as we can from the top and we've reinforced the wellbore, then we will drill into the annulus and then put mud and cement in from the bottom.

So I'm sure any part is riskier than another part. The entire sequence has been laid out to mitigate risk.

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

Operator: Your final question comes from Andrew Gully with AFP.

Q: Hi there. A question for Admiral Allen. What's the latest estimate for when the static kill will begin? I think Bob Dudley said at one of his many interviews yesterday that it could be as early as Sunday night. We were thinking more Monday from what you said before.

Admiral Allen: Yes, I understand. I've been saying Monday, but it's kind of conditions-based. Now that we have removed the subsea containment device, or the packer, we have to put the drill string back down the relief well, and then we're going to use that drill string as a way to pump mud in and basically flush the wellbore and get it clean, and then we're going to put the casing down. And then the casing has to be cemented.

So these are steps. And if everything goes according to schedule, it could be on Monday, if they're able to gain some time there, it could be earlier than that. It could slip until Tuesday. But I've been giving Monday as the approximate date.

I think we all need to understand, this is a very complicated, complex operation, and a lot of things have to happen in sequence for us to get to the point where we can do the static kill. But it's going to be putting the casing pipe in, getting the cement run around that, and making sure that well—the relief well has integrity.

Related stories from McClatchy DC