Transcript of Thad Allen's Aug. 16 briefing on the BP oil spill

This is the transcript from National Incident Commander Thad Allen's teleconference press briefing Monday, Aug,. 16, on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The transcript was provided by the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center.

August 16, 2010

11:30 a.m. CDT

Thad Allen: Thank you Jeff. Good day everybody. I'm going to give you an update on what's going on with the relief well. As I briefed last week and over the weekend, we are in the process right now of developing courses of action that would inform our decision when to execute the directive to BP due to the final intercept of the relief well which we will do.

We are currently working with BP engineers and our science team to look at test results and do investigations to lead us to the best way to mitigate any risk of intercepting the annulus and increasing the pressure in the annulus.

Just to summarize for those who have not been on the last couple of briefings, we believe there is some amount of cement that came down the casing as part of the static kill and has placed itself between the reservoir and the annulus thereby blocking oil into the annulus.

There is a seal at the top of the annulus that connects to the blowout preventer. When we do the intercept well and commence pumping mud and cement into the annulus it will create pressure in the annulus.

We want to make sure before I give the order and direct BP to do that, that we know the implications of that pressure, and how we will deal with it. There're basically two courses of action that are being looked at right now and at the same time we are continuing to do what we call a near ambient pressure test on the blow out preventer.

Let me talk about the near near ambient pressure test first and I'll talk about the two options. What we have done is we've taken the pressure in the blowout preventer down to a point where it's just above the pressure outside in the ocean.

And that's what we would call the ambient hydrostatic pressure of the weight of the water at 5,000 feet. We have created the pressure inside the BOP that's slightly above that, right around 25 to 100 PSI.

And this allows us to test for the performance of the well and the integrity of the well with the cement in it. There's no significant drop in pressure. That tells us that we have achieved integrity inside the well with the static kill and we have a stable situation moving forward.

We are seeing very, very small drops in pressure from the near ambient pressure test and that is attributed to a gas that is in the current well column that's coming out around the flanges and forms a bubble which we could actually see and test acoustically with the ROV.

So, with that provision it appears that the near ambient pressure test is indicating to us that we have integrity with the static kill that was done on the well. While we are assessing that, we are looking at two potential options to deal with pressure in the annulus.

One will be to develop a relief mechanism in the current deepwater rising BOP and capping stack that will allow us to release pressure as it was built up in the annulus so there wouldn't be any threat to the BOP.

The current system we have right now as you remember is the deepwater blowout preventer. There is a spooling tool that connects the blowout preventer to the capping stack. That is the aggregation of three different devices and as much integrity as a complete blowout preventer that was put on for that purpose would have.

So we're exploring and have asked BP to provide us options on how they would come up with a pressure relief method for that capping stack and the blowout preventer. We're also looking at the feasibility of actually going ahead and removing the capping stack and the blowout preventer because we have integrity in the well and actually bringing in a new blowout preventer and putting that on in advance of the bottom kill.

If we were to do that, any pressure would be generated in the annulus and any forcing up of product through that seal into the blowout preventer could be easily handled within a blowout preventer which is rated much higher and at much higher pressure levels than would be produced in the annulus.

This is a subject of ongoing conversation. The science team will meet later on today and then they will brief Secretary Chu and Secretary Salazar. And the science team and Secretary Chu will make a recommendation on how to proceed.

In the meantime we are continuing an over abundance of caution to make sure we have mitigated risks at each point prior to directing the intercept of the well and we will continue to do that. I'd be glad to answer any questions you have for me.

Operator: If you would like to ask a question at this time, simply press star then the number one on your telephone key pad. Again, that is star then the number one to ask a question. We'll pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster.

And your first question comes from the line of Harry Weber with Associated Press.

Harry Weber: Admiral Allen the question I have for you is regarding timing. So, based on the review of these results and so forth, can you give us an update on when you believe you'll issue the order to proceed with the drilling and interception and the bottom kill.

And at that point the timeline for when you believe the actual bottom kill will begin and from there the timing of when you believe you'll actually be able to declare the well is dead, it's a moment that everybody's and you all I imagine are eager to be able to say?

Thad Allen: Yes. Nobody wants to make that declaration any more than I do. Let me work from backwards and bring you to where we're at. Once we are prepared to issue the order to intercept the annulus, it will be 96 hours until that intercept is made.

The 96 hours will be required for them to build the last 50 feet and their offset 3.5 feet now from the Macondo well. And that will include the preparations to do that, the drilling and the interception itself.

After that as you know with the static kill, it was 24 to 36 hours to be able to put the mud and then the cement in and go through a little bit of a curing process with the cement, do pressure readings, so you add four days and three days together.

I would say approximately seven days after I direct them to move ahead we would finish the pressure test and declare the well dead. Now we would know probably before that, we probably had killed the well but you want to have the pressure test to make sure the cement is holding.

Now that seven days will not start until we finish deciding how we're going to manage the risk associated with pressure in the annulus. So everything is conditions based which that 96 hours would start.

If we have to design and build out a pressure release system for the current BOP, that's going to take a significant amount of time, a week or so probably to do that. If we elect to put a new blowout preventer on, there is a blowout preventer out there connected with DD2, it was drilling the second relief well, and we had it staged over there.

These timelines won't be known until the recommendation is made to me on the course of action and we begin to mobilize that equipment and I would update you when I knew that. But right now this will be conditions based as recommended by the science team working with BP down there.

But once the decision is made as I said, when I say we begin the intercept it will be 96 hours or four days after that that we will actually intercept the annulus. Then I would allow two to three days for the cement to set up and the pressure tests to be done.

Harry Weber: So is it – if I could ask a quick follow up, is it possible then based on this that you might not actually start the bottom kill now until next week instead of this weekend?

Thad Allen: We will start the bottom kill when we're ready Harry.

Harry Webber: Thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Joel Achenbach with the Washington Post.

Joel Achenbach: Yes, thank you Admiral. Can you elaborate just a little bit on your decision last week to sign a directive calling for this coordinated integrated system of ocean monitoring?

What caused you to ask for that? Were you unsatisfied with the most recent sort of estimate of – not unsatisfied but did you want to find out more about what happened to the oil and particularly the 26 percent that was unaccounted for?

Can you just tell us a little more information about your thinking on that and what you're looking for?

Thad Allen: Sure, happy to. It wasn't so much an indication of a problem but I thought we had an opportunity, there are a lot of folks out there that are concerned about hydrocarbons in the water column.

You know the 26 percent has been discussed extensively. A lot of pros and cons , and academia and research institutions. I thought if we could bring as much of that thinking under the tent if you will metaphorically, bring it to bear on the problem, we would get a much better solution.

I have had a couple of conversations with Jane Lubchenco from NOAA and I said what if we could take all the efforts you've got going on out there and somehow connect that with other research institutions that are conducting research out there and particularly some of the academic institutions and academicians that are out there, and rather than everybody kind of taking their own look at it, that we all looked at it together and then built that into a common picture.

To paraphrase the President Bush 41, I think I'd like to take 1,000 points of light and make it a laser beam in regards to subsea oil. And I thought we had an opportunity to unify that and I felt it was within my authority as a National Incident Commander to direct that as a removal activity under my statutory responsibility.

So, after exploring with my colleagues and peers and government and talking to some folks we thought this was the best way to proceed and I'm delighted that everybody thought it was a great way to go forward too.

So I'm looking forward to a very collaborative effort and producing better results for the American people.

Joel Achenbach: Yes sir. And when do you want an answer to this?

Thad Allen: Well this is actually going to be an ongoing process. What we're looking at tactically near term, is – in fact we've got a team working on this right now - is to come up with a coordinated operational schedule so we know what people are doing where and this is not just the federal community. It's anybody that’s out there doing anything that we know where they're doing, when they're doing it, how they'll bring the data back, how they want to do the analysis associated with the data and how they want to present that.

So it's a coherent picture, it's got transparency and the people that have the ability to bear on the solution that can be brought to bear. Near term we're looking at up to 60 days tactically to look for some surface oil. But in the long-term, we're going to be monitoring protocols, we're going to be required as we look at long-term restoration.

And so it's my goal and I know it's Jane Lubchenco's goal where we have these two processes kind of hooked together so when we're done with the oil spill response, we still have the resources, the testing protocol, the data requirements and the analysis we intend to do so there's (inaudible) between the response and moving into long-term recovery where we want to know long-term what the impacts have been on the Gulf.

To that end, there are meetings going to be taking place this week regarding the transition from a national incident command to natural resources damage assessment and some of those meetings will be held under the purview of the Counsel of Environmental Quality and I talked to Nancy Sutley about this and I think what we got is a very, very good way to attack the near-term issue of where's the oil and the long-term issues of what has been the impact on the Gulf as a result of that. And I think we all feel we're in a pretty good place here.

Joel Achenbach: Thank you.

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

Kristen Hays: Yes, hello Admiral. The static kills seems to go pretty quickly and smoothly but now we're holding off because of concerns of where the cement settled and hardened and if it blocked off from the reservoir the annulus as well. Should BP have just controlled the well with drilling mud and saved the cement for the relief well?

Thad Allen: No, I don’t think so. You got to remember one of our concerns is being able to leave that well during a hurricane. And first the answer is – we got the capping stack on there, basically shut the well in so that allowed us to leave it unattended when tropical storm Bonnie came through. So I think that’s significant.

But to rely on the capping stack that’s connected to a spooling tool and the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer, all which collectively are not that stable if you will through a Category 5 hurricane, I don’t think would have been in the best interest of anybody. So the quicker we could get this well in a stable situation that would mitigate or reduce as much to zero the chance of hydrocarbons going into the Gulf was probably the best course of action.

Kristen Hays: OK, so did you and BP expect this kind of – where we're standing now to continue doing these pressures test to figure out how much oil might be in the annulus and if you have to vent some pressure off, did you expect that step to be part of this?

Thad Allen: I think we had better communication, when I say communication that’s a path of liquid being forced down than we did in the injectivity test, I think the results of the static kill were much more positive than they believed and we had much better communication to allow the mud and the cement to go down and one of the implications of that was some of the stuff that went into the reservoir actually ended up going back up into the annulus.

I don’t think – I'm not sure they expected that we would have been that successful and that there would have been that open to communication done the well bore. I think it's nothing more than that and we took a step to minimize risk in relation to a discharge and during hurricane season and we're just dealing with the implications of that.

I don’t think it's good or bad, it's just where we at. We just need to make sure we understand the condition of the annulus as we move forward.

Kristen Hays: OK, thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Isabel Ordonez with Dow Jones.

Isabel Ordonez: Yes, thank you. I just would like to see if you can elaborate a little bit more on the (inaudible) that you mentioned that Secretary Chu is going to make today or some recommendations he's going to make today.

And also the second question is you know what are the risk that are you know the company and the government are taking too long given that we are (inaudible) in what is believed to be inactive here (inaudible)?

Thad Allen: First of all, I take exception to your characterization that we're taking too long. We're doing what's appropriate, we're doing an abundance of caution, we're being responsible how we're moving forward. So I think we're right where we need to be. Can you repeat the first question again?

Isabel Ordonez: Yes you mentioned earlier that Secretary Chu is expected to do a recommendation maybe today or this week. I just would like to know more about what kind of a recommendation you are expecting to hear.

Thad Allen: We're looking for the science team, in conjunction with discussion with the BP engineers, to recommend a course of action that mitigates risk prior to me issuing the order for them to intercept the well. And the two options that are emerging that they would make recommendations concerning would be to have BP provide us with a risk pressure relief device on the current stack that would allow us to deal with the pressure in the annulus.

Or the pros and cons associated with going ahead and removing the current BOP and the capping stack understanding that we have fairly – we have good integrity with the cement job that was done during the static flow and put a new BOP on that would be able to withstand any pressure we might induce during the annulus. Those are the two things that we're trying to look at right now.

Isabel Ordonez: Thank you.

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

Vivian Kuo: Admiral Allen, that second BOP attached to the DD2, is that all ready to go should you decide to remove the existing capping stack and blow out preventer to replace and is there a thought process that militates in favor of doing that because you'd be essentially doing an earlier retrieval than thoughts of key evidence into what might have caused the explosion back in April?

Thad Allen: Those are both good questions. First of all, if we decide to go with the new blow out preventer, it will be the one that’s currently being used by the DD2 on the second relief well. That will require them to seek approval from the Department of Interior and BOEM, a permit for what we call temporary abandonment, which would allow them to put a plug down in the well and remove the blow out preventer from the second relief well and move it over and stage it.

That would take several days to do that and what we do if that was the course of action, we would then continue the near ambient pressure test and we would try and estimate the amount of time that the well would be unprotected by a blow out preventer and only with the cement that was in the well and we would try to go to one and a half or maybe two times that amount of time with the ambient pressure test to ensure us that when we took the blow out preventer off to replace it and under that time of exposure that we would have well integrity.

So let me restate that because it probably was a little confusing. We would ready – if we decided to change the blow out preventer, we would ready the blow out preventer on DD2 to be moved over and that would require some conversation and approval of BOEM.

While that process was going on, we would continue the near ambient pressure test for a time period that would cover the expected time period we thought the BOP would be off before DD2's BOP would be installed.

That would give us higher confidence, but we would have sustained well integrity during the time there would be no blow off preventer on the well. And both types of timelines as I was saying earlier, are being developed in discussions right now between the science team and BP. It will be part of what's going to be considered by the science team and Secretary Chu prior to them making a recommendation to me.

Vivian Kuo: OK and so with that new blow out preventer be the one that remains on the well when you do the actual formal plug in, abandonment procedure or would another be put on?

Thad Allen: That’s my understanding that would be the one.

Vivian Kuo: OK, thank you.

Thad Allen: Operator, two more questions.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Gary Taylor with Platts.

Gary Taylor: Thank you. Just curious, I know you haven’t given BP a definite deadline when coming up with their plans and all of that, but I wonder if you've given yourself kind of a deadline by which you want to have a decision have in place for the next move in this, in this saga?

Thad Allen: Well I think in the next – again it's hard to attach a timeline, what I found out in this entire response once we attach a timeline and it changes then we have a credibility problem. I'd rather have a credibility problem about not having a timeline than give you a timeline and have it change.

You all have taught me well. But I would say this, I believe that we should have pretty much exhausted all the alternatives of what it would take to do all of this sometime in the next day or a two at a maximum and we'll be able to announce a decision. A decision would be on how we're going to control the pressure in the annulus and how we would proceed with the two timelines associated, that being on how you would build out a pressure release system and a current system or replace the BOP.

Replacing the BOP has a shorter timeline than building out a pressure system for the existing stack that’s there. But there's nobody that wants to have this happen quicker than I do, but there's nobody that wants to incur more risk to this operation because when we finish this thing, we got a stake in the heart of this well and that’s my overall intention.

Gary Taylor: Thank you.

Operator: And your last question comes from the line of Andrew Gully with AFP.

Andrew Gully: Hi Admiral, can you paint for us a slightly clearer picture of what you think is at the bottom of the annulus. You talked about cement being possibly down there and up to 1,000 barrels of oil I think at one stage unless I've missed an update on that.

And if you put pressure into the annulus you're worried that whatever's in there might fly up and break seals and break equipment up at the top. So what is it exactly that you think is at the bottom? What sort of picture do you have?

Thad Allen: That’s a great question, I don’t think anybody really knows for sure so we got a lot of folks that are really experts in this field and they have the technical backgrounds trying to discuss the implications of what the pressure tests are telling us in our ambient pressure test. We do know that it is very, very likely, I'm not saying it's a 100 percent, because there has been no change in the pressure that would indicate that hydrocarbons are being forced up through the annulus, through the seal at the top.

If we would have got a significant increase in pressure when we started the near ambient pressure test, that would indicate there was communication between the reservoir into the annulus that was raising that hanger casing up and that was causing increased pressure.

We did not get that, so that tells us that there is no movement up in the annulus to create pressure, from that you can infer the cement from the static kill has interacted with the annulus to some extent, to what extent we do not know.

Andrew Gully: What are you most frightened of, is it bits of cement that might not be sealed to anything, that it might be loose, would they be the things that would do the most damage in this scenario where the pressure forces stuff up?

Thad Allen: Well I don’t – I don’t think we much care about the bottom as long as we know that the annulus can hold the pressure once we start to cement because that will kill the well. What you wouldn’t want is somehow to have open communication with the annulus when you didn’t have the ability to control it at the top.

So we just want to make sure we're dealing with both ends. The top is the most important right now and how to manage pressure when we go in to do the intercept and the kill. And frankly, we can control the environment at the top, we can control our options and we can understand what the pressure is. We can't control what we can't see and what we can't measure which is what amount of cement is at the bottom of the annulus that has trapped the oil there. Is that responsive?

Andrew Gully: That was. Thank you.

Thad Allen: OK, thank you.


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