Transcript of Adm. Thad Allen's Friday BP oil leak briefing

This is the transcript of National Incident Commander Thad Allen's briefing with reporters Friday, July 30, on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The transcript was provided by the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center.

July 30, 2010

11:45 a.m. CDT

Thad Allen: Thank you, Megan. Garry, please join me here. I'm delighted to be here at Tyndall Air Force Base, home of the first Air Force and the Air Force component command, U.S. northern command.

I am joined by Major General Garry Dean. We have just had a series of briefings and tours through this command center and a detailed discussion of the air coordination command has been established to help us control the air space over the Gulf and especially the temporary flight restriction area over the wellhead.

A couple of months ago we were having significant aviation security – safety problems out there with all the aircraft that were flying around there and actually were not very efficient in detecting oil and relaying that information to surface units that could actually respond to it.

Through very good coordination between the Air Force, U.S. Northern Command, the inner agency and our partners we've been able to establish a very effective coordination method for recording our surveillance and getting information to the people that need it on the water.

I'm going to give you a little bit of an operations update and take some questions but I'd like Major General Dean to give a few comments about the brief today and his view about how things have been going. Major General?

Garry Dean: Thanks, Admiral. First of all I'd like to say from Tyndall thanks to everybody for being here. This has been a very tenuous disaster really for everybody and so the Air Force component got involved with the Coast Guard and BP, certainly our focus was on the oil because we know the impact that that had on the citizens and the businesses that have been affected and, of course, those who might be affected if this thing would have grown.

Of course, at Tyndall, here our number one effort here was trying to first of all bring and ensure safety and ensure there wasn't another disaster. There were some days up to 150, 175 airplanes trying just (transing) the air space. What we learned after Katrina, in any disaster, is lots of good Americans at the state, the federal, the local level are all responding to try to bring positive effects in a timely manner. And so you don’t want them to have a close call or two airplanes collide together.

Of course, the air domain is our specialty. So that was the first thing was safety. The next one was helping as this thing grew to make sure that we brought more efficiency and effectiveness using a lot of proven processes. Like I said from Katrina and other disasters, we've learned in the air domain how to apply a lot of the tools from our tool set of Air Force capabilities bringing more effectiveness and efficiency primarily on the imagery.

Of course, in this event, it would be oil that was the enemy out there and trying to increase the effectiveness of getting skimmers on oil, preventing oil from getting on the shores which has the most impact and then making sure that we're able to bring more assessment and trying to provide BP and the Coast Guard with a better assessment of how things are going so that we could fine tune that effort to get maximum effectiveness of getting oil off the ocean and off the shores (for an agent) have that direct impact to our local communities.

And so this has been a very successful – we really think that the model that we've developed here – it was the same model that we did in Haiti in inviting the World (inaudible) U.N. into our AOC to actually help manage the runway in Haiti as we were bringing that disaster response in. And so we think we've taken this another notch and so we look forward with the Coast Guard flying this model to future efforts in our nation.

We know we're not done yet and we're still going to apply the same rigor and professionalism in making sure that we keep attacking the oil, giving the decision-makers, giving Admiral Allen and his people the right information they need to continue to take this incident a logical conclusion. Thank you, sir.

Thad Allen: Again, I want to thank Garry and his team for the extraordinary support they’ve given us and we’re actually taking joint inter-agency operations to a new level on how we integrate the whole government approach to deal with this significant problem.

But to give you an idea, we flew 103 sorties yesterday and we’re planning to fly 98 today, so we’re still fairly busy out there and we continue to put forth the effort. And, as I’ve said on several occasions, we are going to be steadfast in our readiness to respond and our response efforts until this well is capped and the threat of oil has gone away.

I’ve met with local leaders on this trip. I actually was in Venice yesterday and actually was able to see video being downloaded from their aircraft that was being coordinated out of here at Tyndall. So you’ve really got a whole government approach as we move forward.

Let me give you a couple of operational updates and then I’ll be glad to take any questions you may have for me. The greatest concern to us right now is the relief well. That's when we will truly end this threat to the environment and the Gulf. Development Driller 3, which is a drill rig, is right now clearing out some debris that was found at the bottom of the well bore caused by the storm passage.

They’re clearing that out right now. They will start running the final casing line tomorrow and Sunday. This could potentially impact the date to start the static kill which will come behind that somewhere maybe between 24 and 36 hours. We’re going to refine that as we go forward.

But, in my briefing yesterday, I talked about starting the hydrostatic topkill some time on Monday. That could shift to Tuesday depending on how long it takes them to remove the debris from the well bore that they located in the last 24 hours and then lay that casing line.

And again, following laying the casing line and cementing that, we will start pumping mud into the top to see if we can fill the pipe and basically have the mud overpower the oil from the reservoir below and remove that part of the – of the threat of oil coming up. Ultimately, it will be the bottom kill we drove into the annulus and fill that with mud and cement it we’ll finally close off the well.

Today the pressure underneath the capping stack is 6,969 pounds. It continues to rise slowly and keeping in line with the curve we would expect for a well that has integrity. We’ll continue to conduct the seismic acoustic testing we look for anomalies, gas bubbles and so forth rising from the floor.

We are using hydrophones and geophones to make sure there aren’t any vibrations or sounds in the well that would cause us any type of concern. We’re also monitoring the temperature, which remains within one degree of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We are continuing to see tar balls come ashore around the area. There are less tar balls being sighted to the east and the panhandle of Florida and so forth as the latest storm, tropical depression Bonnie, that came through actually drove a lot of that oil toward Eastern Mississippi Sound and southeast parts of Louisiana and then across the path of the Mississippi River up into Barataria Bay and (Templaire Bay).

We continue to follow that closely. As I said, I was in Venice yesterday to talk to our response forces down there. We are on scene. We are fully staffed and ready to go. Let me restate to the American public and the people of the Gulf coast: we are here to see this thing through to the finish. Our forces are ready to deploy. We are going to make sure this well is killed, make sure the oil on the surface is responded to, and make sure the shores are clean—and how clean is clean is something we will develop with our local leaders and the trustees of all of the resources that are applied as we move forward.

With that, I’d like to take any questions you may have for me.

Female: (Inaudible) in the last 24 hours that will push back the static kill?

Thad Allen: What we did was we went in after the – after the storm passed and we had put a subsea containment device – basically a plug in the bottom of the well to maintain the integrity of the well. We had to pull that out and then we put a drill pipe down – what they do is actually put a drilling pipe down and flush the well bore out so they could put the pipe casing down.

But the last 40-46 feet, we found some debris where it just kind of settled in on itself while the storm was passing. We had to go down and clean that out and it’s going to take probably about 24 hours to do that, so we may have a one or day and a half delay to actually clean the casing which will delay the top kill by about the same amount of time.

Male: Admiral Allen, it seems like the obituary for this spill is being written all over the airwaves. Is that a little bit premature? Is that right?

Thad Allen: I think you’re right. We should not be writing any obituary for this event until the well is completely sealed, until we have no more oil on the surface of the water, until we understand where all the oil has gone to, until the beaches are cleaned, until the local—federal, state and local officials agree that the beaches are clean. And we have a way to go back when we need to find oil that reoccurred. We’re still going to have tar balls and oil for some time. We’re still engaged in the fight, and we need to stay engaged.

Male: Where did the surface oil go?

Thad Allen: Well, we're dealing with something called an oil budget right now and that's trying to estimate the total amount of oil that's been released and then trying to figure out how much has been mechanically skimmed, what has evaporated, what we've been able to remove through in situ burning, and what has been dispersed with the application of disbursements.

We have an (inaudible) team looking at that right now and we're looking at what kind of percentage of the oil and where it went and then what would be left that would need to be accounted for.

And we have a team looking at that right now. We'll probably be making that at least for the next few days on that. But it's something that we ultimately need to know for the total amount of oil that's out there not only because of where it's at where it needs to be recovered from, but also for natural resource damage assessment and the long term ecological effects.

Female: Sorry. (Alexander Hill), (inaudible) news and I also want to know – we've been getting a lot of calls for state and locally about testing of the water. Is that something that we're looking into in the near shore and offshore about the safety of (inaudible) necessarily here? Are we going to be testing it for disbursements et cetera?

Thad Allen: There's a significant amount of testing that has been going on and will continue to go on both water testing and air testing. The water testing is generally being done by NOAA. The air testing is generally done by the EPA.

And as you also know the FDA and NOAA have a very rigorous fish testing program (inaudible) coming out as safe as well. But what we're finding out, the further you get away from the wellhead, the fewer hydrocarbons they're finding in the water column.

So it's almost like a plume a very fine mist if you can imagine within the water itself, it dissipates as it further gets away from the wellhead so it's very, very hard to track and find this.

But, at any particular time, anywhere between five and six (Miller) ships that are out there actually taking a reading seismic and acoustic information, creating if you will slices of the gulf. They create almost the end equivalent of an MRI. And we're going to continue to do that. We'll also continue with the air testing as well.

Male: (Inaudible) but, do you have any idea how long the (inaudible) is going to be closed because of that underwater oil?

Thad Allen: Well, there are kind of a couple of steps that have to be taken and again I would refer you to the FDA and NOAA. But I generally know the procedure that's followed. First of all, the general area has to remain free of surface oil for some period of time so you know that at least visually that there's no presence of oil.

And then there are samples of seafood that are taken and there are two types of tests that are done on the seafood. One is just a sensory test. The other one they're actually taken to a lab and tested.

And based on those tests they will decide what portions of the ocean to be opened. They are aggressively looking at this. They are testing seafood all the time. We realize that a lot of these vessels cannot fish out there.

A lot of them are involved in the vessel of opportunity program. We would like to see the commercial fishermen and the recreational fishermen back doing what they're supposed to be doing.

And I know the minute that we have enough information established where we can open areas, I know we're poised to do that.

Female: Speaking of the Vessels of Opportunity program—a lot of our guys locally are a part of it—can you explain, I know I’ve heard about a drawdown of that or downsizing, can you talk about that?

Thad Allen: Well, I think what we need to do is adjust the resources out there for what the operational requirement is. And when there was a significant amount of oil on the surface and we could deploy local commercial fishing vessels for skimming, provide them skimming equipment, that was a very good use of these Vessels of Opportunity.

As the oil starts to dissipate, we have other challenges out there we’re going to have to address. One of them is, ultimately, we’re going to have to take in all this boom. Eleven million feet of boom that’s out there, that’s probably going to require some support to do that. NOAA is interested in using commercial fishing vessels to go out and actually catch fish so they can be tested, in relation with whether or not they can open the fisheries.

So we’re going to look to see where we can employ these Vessels of Opportunities, but at some point we’re going to have to match the fleet to match the operational requirement. This is a very difficult situation because if the fisheries aren’t reopened, and you don’t have any uses for the Vessels of Opportunity, you’ve reached the point where they’re deprived of income.

This will result probably in having them look at the claims process with BP or the new Gulf Coast claims center that’s being stood up. I had a meeting yesterday with Louisiana officials, and we really need to be committed over the next four to six weeks in managing this Vessels of Opportunity program as well as we can and making sure that if we have a choice between, say a contracted operation offshore and we could use a vessel of opportunity, to see if we can employ them first.

Kristen Hays: Yes, hello, Admiral. Just a little – can you explain to us a little more of what this debris was and how did it manage to get into the bottom of the relief well when you had a plug there.

Thad Allen: Well, Kristen, what we did was we had put a plug down the relief well but it didn’t go entirely down the well bore. And at the very end of the well bore basically all it is, is a hole that’s been drilled out in a formation and some of the sediment around the sidewalls just kind of fell in on itself.

If you can imagine if you drilled a hole and did not put a pipe down to reinforce it we had about 40 feet where it just settled in on itself. It’s not a huge problem but it has to be removed before you can put the pipe casing down so that’s what’s being done today.

Kristen Hays: OK, thank you.

(Thomas Davis): Thank you, Admiral. We’re wondering why we’re not getting any video from this (Gandhi). They’re usually the ones that’s been monitoring the upper portion of BOP. We haven’t seen that in two days, and also can you tell us about the operation of the responder vessels that have been 15 miles to the West of the wellhead?

Thad Allen: We’ll check on the video from the (Gandhi). We’re using the ROVs for a number of different purposes right now including monitoring the sea floor for anomalies and assisting us in getting data from the geophones and hydrophones. And we won’t get that information from BP and Ocean Air and we’ll provide that to you later on today. Can you restate your question on the response vessels a little more clearly, I’m not sure I understand the question.

(Thomas Davis): There’s been a grouping of responder class anti pollution vessels about 15 miles West of the wellhead, is there any operations going on there?

Thad Allen: Well, we’re looking for oil to skim out there. If you’re talking about something like MSRC responder vessels, we have them standing by for containment in case we need them just as we have the Helix Producer I and the Discover Enterprise standing by.

We feel that it’s incumbent on us to be able to deal with a leak should one occur until we actually kill the well, not that we’re expecting one. But over an abundance of caution, we need to be able to either contain or be able to deal with the spill if it should happen while we’re finishing off killing the well. Was that responsive?

(Thomas Davis): Yes, thank you.

Thad Allen: OK.

(Casa Kilamoski): Hi, thank you for taking my question. I’m sorry if this question was asked at some point before but is there a risk of oil escaping to the sea at time during the static kill or bottom kill?

Thad Allen: Let me go to the risk associated with this and how we’re mitigating the risk. This procedure is going to take place in three parts. We are very near the Maconda well with the relief well in fact, the end of the relief well bore right now is approximately four and a half from Maconda well and about 100 feet above where we intend to intercept it.

That is the well bore right now that we’re clearing out of debris and intend to put a casing pipe down and cement around it. We will do that to make sure that the relief well is reinforced and nothing can happen to it pending the static kill.

The next step will be the hydrostatic kill from the top in which we will pump mud in – mud that’s heavier than the weight of the oil in the column and fill the well pipe clear down to the reservoir with mud. We intend to do that until we have zero pressure.

The third step will be to drill that remaining 100 feet. That’ll take several days because they will drill in 20 to 25 foot increments and they will pull the drill pipe out and put down what they call a ranging tool.

That will sense where the magnetic field of the current pipe and very slowly hone in on that extra 100 feet while they cover four feet horizontally at an incline of about 2.9 degrees so they know exactly where to enter that.

In the long run, what they're trying to do is about 17,000 feet intercept a seven-inch pipe. This is almost the equivalent of space telemetry applied to the subsurface strata. The risks we are trying mitigate are risks to the integrity of the well itself.

And what we will know immediately start pumping mud down the well through the hydrostatic top kill. If there is precipitous drop in pressure, that would be an indication to us that we have an integrity problem with the pipe casing or the well bore itself outside the pipe casing in which we would take immediate action to reduce that pressure.

But right now the sequence will be lay the casing line, make sure the relief well is reinforced, fill the inside of the well from the top with mud, and then drill into the annulus, the very outside the pipe in the well bore and fill that mud from the bottom up.

The minute that we need to we go into the drill pipe itself from the relief well on the bottom and finish killing the well. Was that responsive?

(Casa Kilamoski): But again if you are – so the only moment where you have the risk of gas escaping is when you find that the well actually doesn’t have integrity?

Thad Allen: Well, even if we have a drop in pressure when the mud goes in through the top, we will continue to drill mud. That doesn’t necessarily mean there would be hydrocarbons escaping.

It would be an indication that there was a breach that there might be hydrocarbons already out there in the formation that preexisted because of the – because of a potential breach. But frankly over the last 14 days, through the seismic surveys that have been done and the acoustic testing we have ruled out any anomalies that would indicate to us that we have well integrity problem.

So we think the probability of that is very, very low but the sequence of events that we are carrying out are intended to mitigate any risks but we think the probability is very low.

Female: OK. Thank you.

Joanne Biddle: Good morning. Thanks for taking my question. Could you explain when you're hoping to stop bringing some of this 11 million feet boom in? Also where are you going to put it? Where are you going to store it? Is it reusable?

Thad Allen: That’s a great question. First of all we only move boom based on conditions and requirements. If there is an area where the boom is no longer required, you don’t want to leave the boom out there for a couple of reasons.

Number one it's subject to weather. It can be damaged. And number two, it actually accumulates sea growth and whenever a boom has to be recovered, it has to be decontaminated even if it hasn’t been in contact with oil.

There are biological and other things that are on that boom and they're required to be cleaned and some of it needs to be repaired. Some of it will be put back in inventory for future responses and some of it, if it's beyond useable life will be actually recycled because it is plastics and can be recycled.

Ultimately the disposition of the – especially for the amount of boom that’s out there be part of a phase down planning process in which we will ascertain how much equipment needs to remain in the area.

We're still in hurricane season until the first of December. We still have tar balls washing ashore. We want to make sure that we are in a position to sustain our ability to response and (inaudible) this response until we're sure there is no threat of oil moving out there.

We've initiated a very, very deliberate planning process on how we would do this. I met yesterday with the State of Louisiana and the parishes. We were outreaching to the State of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

They see exactly when the boom is no longer needed. After the passage of the last tropical depression Bonnie, we also found out where we protected very sensitive marsh areas, any of the storm surge that pushes the boom up into the marshes.

You have the possibility to – the real reality that that boom in actuality can conduct – can actually create more mechanical damage in the marsh than not having the boom there to begin with.

So we're actually reassessing with our state partners where we actually want to put the boom back that was displaced by the latest tropical depression. So I guess the bottom line is it's going to be conditions based. And when we feel we can remove the boom we will. We don’t want to do it precipitously.

We want to make sure we're responding to the threat. But in general the boom itself can present a threat. If there is no threat from oil to the environment around itself and it needs to be dealt with after it's removed in terms of decontamination.

Zunaira Zaki: Hi, Admiral, I just wanted to get some more clarification from you on these hydrocarbons in that water. We're getting conflicting information from the different people who have been out there about what kind of plumes there are in the ocean.

Some people say that they might actually be diminishing, others say not. What is your take on this now?

Thad Allen: Well, I'd defer to Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator but I do know and we have frequent conversations on this that there are anywhere from five to six NOAA vessels out there on any particular day.

They're actually taking hydrocarbon samples of the water column trying to figure out the density. What we do know is the further you get away from the wellhead the lower the density is and sooner or later the hydrocarbons are reduced to what we would call background levels or what you might normally find in waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

We're continuing to test or we're continuing to work with the consortiums at the universities around the Gulf. We're continuing to try and do analysis associated with this but this is the type of science and a biological challenge the country hasn't been presented with before and we're trying to make sure we learn as much as we can moving forward.

In closer to shore we're doing some other things. We're actually putting crab traps down with what we call snare boom. This is a type of material which oil will adhere to but water won't and then we're going out and pulling these traps up from time-to-time to see if there is any oil that's passing under the surface.

I think what you're going to see is us get more rigorous in – to the extent that we can put out sifting devices or physical containment devices that can indicate a presence of oil and we're pretty much going to be trying to do that wherever we can. But right now the – it's (inaudible) to us all to try to gather as much information as we can.

And, frankly, when we started there was not a lot of information out there and we're trying to develop that.

Zunaira Zaki: Thank you.

Bertha Coombs: Hi, Admiral. I had a question with regard to the relief well. Early on there was always the discussion about what would happen if you found oil in the annulus as you intercept. Is your—is the assessment now of the scientists that you're not going to find it there or is that still going to be a question of once you hit it you'll know?

Thad Allen: I think it's going to be a question of once we hit it we'll know. At the very best possible case when we put the mud down the pipe itself from the top. If that was the only source that the oil was coming to the surface that wouldn't affect – it could have the effect of stopping the leak.

However, we don’t whether the oil was just coming up the pipe itself or through the annulus or again if there is any kind of structural problem with the casing of the well bore. So while we're going to do the – we can do the top kill or the hydrostatic kill and actually potentially bring the pressure of the stacking cap to zero. We're not going to be satisfied until we actually drill into that annulus outside the pipe and actually fill that with mud which I think we need to do and if we need to we'll actually drill back into the pipe just to make sure from the bottom up that we've totally killed the well.

Megan Moloney: Thank you operator. Everyone on the line that concludes our call for today. Thank you.


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