Transcript of Adm. Thad Allen's Sept. 1 briefing on the BP oil spill

This is the transcript of National Incident Commander Thad Allen's briefing with reporters Wednesday, Sept. 1, on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The transcript was provided by the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center.

September 1, 2010

10:30 a.m. CDT

Thad Allen: Thank you, Jeff.

Good morning. As you know, I’m here in Houston today. This morning I met with the BP engineering team and their senior leadership. We had a conference call with Secretary Salazar and his science team going over the current conditions out on site and our current efforts at oil control. I’d like to give you an update on that and then I’d like to talk a little bit about subsea oil, which has been a topic of concern to a lot of folks and I’d be glad to take your questions after that.

We are currently in a holding pattern offshore waiting to proceed with the replacement of the blowout preventer, the legacy blowout preventer from the Deepwater Horizon in advance of putting a new blowout preventer on that will allow us to have pressure integrity in the well, allow us to proceed with the oil kill itself.

We’ve hit a weather window where it’s been difficult for us to move forward. I’d like to explain that briefly and then tell you how we think we’re going to move ahead.

We anticipate removing the blowout preventer with the latching mechanism that will be attached to a drill pipe string that will be suspended from the Q4000. There’s a picture of the Q4000 right to my left here.

The combined weight of the drill string, the latching mechanism and the blowout preventer itself is approximately a million pounds. When they released that blowout preventer from the well it will be suspended at about 5000 feet below the surface.

There are two things we’re concerned about when this occurs, number one is the wave height. You can imagine the Q4000 riding up and down on the waves. When they ride up it exerts more dynamic loading on that pipe system. So we’re concerned about the weight and the ability of the pipe system to handle that. So there is a limit as far as the wave height for being able to recover the BOP.

Secondarily, when you have something suspended 5000 feet below a drilling rig like this you have a pendulum motion. It kind of swings around and that’s related to the period of the swell – of the swells in the waves when they come through. So the combination of the period of the waves and the height of the waves creates a set of conditions that dictates when you can safely do this. We are in a window now where we cannot do that because it exceeds the safety factors. We believe, in the next 24 to 36 hours, we will enter a weather window that will allow us to proceed.

So with that in mind, we are making preparations right now to take advantage of that weather window which we believe will last Thursday, Friday, Saturday, potentially into Sunday to remove the blowout preventer.

The first step that will be taken will be tomorrow around midday. We will bring in the Discoverer Enterprise. They already have a riser pipe that’s been dropped down to about 4000 feet with a latching device and they will remove the capping stack. That is the capping stack we put on on the 15 of July that basically shut the well in. So we will remove that and the Discoverer Enterprise will then move away.

At that point, the Q4000 will come in and latch up and will be ready to (lift) the blowout preventer when the reach the wave height and the period of wave that will allow them to be in the safety window.

We’re moving in advance, knowing that when we get the window we need to be able to move right then.

So the Q4000 will be hooked up, ready to release the blowout preventer and lift it, and we’ll be ready to do that when they achieve the weather window, which we think will come sometime in about 24 to 36 hours from now.

Once that happens, the blow out preventer will be lifted, brought to the surface and to give you an idea, if you look at the photograph just to my left here—it’s kind of hard to see because the darkness of the photograph—but that’s a very large object and there are two tugboats underneath the Q4000 managing that so you can see how large the Q4000 is. It will literally raise the blowout preventer up through the Q4000 and if you look to the picture on the left, there’s a very high derrick there in the set of cranes. One of the interesting things about the Q4000 is that it has the height to be able to lift that blowout preventer completely up out of the water and place it on deck of the Q4000.

Ultimately they will take apart the lower marine riser package from the blowout preventer, store those on the Q4000, get in closer to shore and then transfer those to other vessels or barges to be taken to a staging area. This will all be done under the supervision of the joint investigations team and under the conditions laid out by the Department of Justice regarding the evidentiary requirements for handling the blowout preventer, which is material to the number of investigations that are going on.

Once the blowout preventer is removed, Development Driller II, which was drilling the second relief well, will move in with the new blowout preventer and will place it on top of the well. At that point, there will be a series of diagnostics conducted to make sure that the well is – the blowout preventer is functioning properly, including testing the valves and ability to retain pressure and so forth.

Once the blowout preventer has been tested we will be then in position to proceed with the killing of the well, if you will. And we are looking that the timeline to move forward, but it is contingent on completing these steps and these steps I would pass on to you that are contingent themselves on weather. And the removal of the blowout preventer could be impacted by the fact of whether or not the pipe that is suspected of being suspended below the blowout preventer is in contact with any cement that might have adhered to it while we were doing the static kill, whether or not we have to pull to get that free. One of two things could happen, the blowout preventer comes free and it’s not a problem. We lift it up and at some point we will cut the pipe below the blowout preventer and that will be taken to the surface by another vessel.

If we cannot free the pipe from the blowout preventer by applying about 80,000 pounds of pull, we will manually open the rams, remove the blowout preventer and then cut the pipe off after we’ve removed the blowout preventer. So we will try to pull the whole thing up together. If we can’t, we will mechanically open the rams and remove the blowout preventer.

We believe then if we do that then we can go ahead and proceed with killing the well sometime after Labor Day weekend. But again, this is conditions based on weather and then the condition of the pipe as it relates to blowout preventer when we attempt to remove it.

That’s the current status. I was out at the well site on Monday. I was aboard the Q4000. I climbed down below on the catwalks to take a look at the area underneath there where they bring the blowout preventer up. And it’s hard to see now, but in a six foot sea state you’d be amazed at how much up and down vertical movement there is that is hard to detect unless you’re sitting right on top of it. So this is a good safety call. We’ll have to wait for the right weather window to proceed.

I’d like to talk also today about subsea oil monitoring. As you know, there’s been a lot of conversation about the potential and the extent of any hydrocarbons that might be present in the Gulf of Mexico. This relates also to the discussion of the oil budget that took place several weeks ago. There’ve been several academic institutions that have set research vessels out. There’s been extensive monitoring by NOAA and EPA since the start of this event. Several weeks ago, I sent a letter to Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Unified Area Commander, and directed him to come up with a comprehensive hydrocarbon monitoring plan.

My goal was to take all the extensive efforts that are going on and see if we could unify them into a comprehensive knowledge management based picture of the Gulf of Mexico as it relates to the presence of hydrocarbons in the water column. To date, there have been over 27,000 samples taken in over 182,000 miles in the Gulf of Mexico, but my goal is to bring all this together and get it into one coherent picture that both the government and the academic community can look at, understand, discuss and draw conclusions from.

To that end, Admiral Zukunft is preparing an implementation plan for this unified testing program and this week we are socializing that plan with academic institutions around the Gulf. Yesterday, we had meetings at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Today, we are meeting with the Gulf of Mexico institute in Biloxi, Mississippi and we will also be meeting at Tulane University.

The goal is to understand the work in progress, the aspirations, and any value added we can gain by talking to the academicians that are involved in trying to understand the presence of hydrocarbons.

Moving forward, this will allow us to better understand what kind of threat remains out there and this will also set the stage for long-term natural resource damage assessment and any long-term sampling requirements that might need to be carried out under the shift to the natural resources damage assessment.

I’ve got a couple of charts up here that just kind of indicate the density of some of the testing that’s been done and these relate to testing anywhere from using autonomous underwater vehicles to collect sample to putting down crab traps in and around the coastal areas of what we call snare boom. It’s the pom pom like booms, you’ve probably seen that where oil sticks to it and you pull them up occasionally to see if there’s been any oil in contact with it.

It also includes testing that has been done with the NOAA oceanographic vehicles and just an array of some of the different types of technology that’s been used out there. A lot of folks have been working on this very, very hard since the start of the spill with the wellhead under control and the shifting concerned to long-term impacts of hydrocarbons in the water column. This is a prudent thing to do at this point and we’re anxious to move forward and unify the technology effort in support of understanding better either the presence or the lack thereof or the disposition and the fate of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

With that, I’d be glad to take any questions you have for me today. If you could identify yourself? You got a microphone? Please go ahead.

Female: (Inaudible – no microphone).

Thad Allen: Well, it will largely be within the purview of what we call the joint investigation team. That’s a joint team that was established by the Department of Interior, the Department of Homeland Security and that team has been holding hearings not only in New Orleans, but here. That was the body that issued the subpoenas for the blowout preventer. There’ll be a chain of custody to make sure that we know exactly the condition and that there is continuous monitoring. They’ll be including ROVs when we start to actually move it. Ultimately it will be taken to a point somewhere on land where everything we put together with the other debris and pieces that have been recovered from the rig itself.

A lot of this right now is currently at the U.S. Coast Guard station, at the (inaudible) facility, the Nassau facility on the Mississippi River Gulf outlet in New Orleans exactly where it finally ends up I think is yet to be determined but that’s the nominal plan at this point.

Is that responsive?

Female: (Inaudible). Can you just elaborate on the risk of using (inaudible), what actually (inaudible).

Thad Allen: Well, what you don’t want to do is try and lift a heavy object and have the lifting device capability be exceeded by the weight load on it. In other words, you don’t want the pipe to break. And what they’re looking at, they’ve already – what they’re actually engineering in between a 1.5 and a 1.75 margin of excellence. In other words, if you’re going to be lifting a million pounds, they want – the pipe to withstand stand 1.75 million pounds.

Male: Admiral, this is (inaudible) from Dow Jones. I understood, well, you are planning to remove the capping stack before the weather window appears, or do you have to wait 24, 36 hours to start doing that?

Thad Allen: That’s a good question. We can remove the capping stack a little before the Q4000 because the Discoverer Enterprise and the riser pipe can withstand greater sea states. OK? The riser pipe coming down from the Discoverer Enterprise was designed to actually fit on the well. If you remember, we used it to produce oil coming up. The latching device is going to lift the blowout preventer to the Q4000 is a drill string. So it is not the same type of mechanism to lift it and it has different sets of parameters in which they can operate in. We can remove the Discoverer Enterprise and remove the capping stack in advance than have the Q4000 ready to go when we hit the weather window. Good question.

Male: (Inaudible – no microphone).

Thad Allen: Tomorrow at noon we will start. If everything holds according to plan, tomorrow around noon we will start removing the capping stack with the Discoverer Enterprise—move the Q4000 in and have it in position to be able to lift the blowout preventer when we get the weather window.

Phil Archer: Admiral, I’m Phil Archer with KPRC-TV in Houston. What does your team know about the condition of the blowout preventer right now? There was some damage – is it certain there was damage to it before the explosion?

Thad Allen: I think we’ve learned certain things along the way and I don’t want to presuppose what will be a technical analysis done by our forensic team. But we know – there are some things we do know. First of all, it did not actuate fully, otherwise we would not have had the event and that the exact location, the position of the rams and the annulars is not known exactly. We thought at one point the pipe might have been suspended from the annular which is the upper seal and the lower marine riser package. But in our attempt to fish those out the pipes fell in. That indicates some fragility of the pipe. There were some issues about whether or not there were hydrates further down in the lower marine riser package in the blowout preventer that might have been hampering the movement of the pipe. I think we could have gone on for a very long period of time putting cameras down there and conducting what we would call fishing.

But at this point, we were getting negligible return on that information, and we did not know it was below the rams. So we think at this point it’s advisable to lift the blowout preventer off. If you come off with the pipe that’s fine. We’ll cut the pipe, remove the pipe. If it can’t then we’ll need to – we’ll need to mechanically open those rams up and get the blowout preventer off. We will not know the exact status until they get that thing ashore and actually look inside it.

Male: (Inaudible) visual evidence that a pressure collar was – there was a damaged pressure collar, piece of it allegedly came up a couple of weeks before the explosion.

Thad Allen: Not that I’m aware of. That doesn’t mean there aren’t pieces of it in there that might be found. I think its speculation at this point. I think we’re going to need to get out of the water and let the investigative team take a look at it.

Operator, be glad to go to the phone at this time.

Operator: At this time, I would like to remind everyone in order to ask a question press star then the number one on your telephone keypad.

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

Kristen Hays: Yes, hello Admiral. Can you tell us how high are the waves now and what is the wave limit? How high can they be or how low must they be for the Q4000 to do its job?

Thad Allen: They need to be below four feet to start removing the capping stack and ideally, they’d be about three feet.

Kristen Hayes: For the BOP?

Thad Allen: That’s correct.

Kristen Hays: All right, thank you.

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

Jim Polson: Yes, Admiral. If I could just follow up on that. This is three feet for the BOP, not for the capping stack?

Thad Allen: That is correct. There is different tolerance for sea states related to the Discoverer Enterprise and the Q4000 and its not related to so much to what the ships themselves can stand, because they’re very sturdy ships. It has to do with their – the way they’re connected to the capping stack and the blowout preventer. The Discoverer Enterprise hooks up to the capping stack with a regular riser pipe which is used for drilling. You’ve seen the very robust wide pipe with insulation around it and also the kill and the choke line and other connections that go down that – its – carries a much heavier load and can withstand a higher sea state.

The Q4000 on the other hand, does not have a riser system associated with it. It is basically a drill string that we use to lift the blowout preventer.

And let me answer your next question before we ask it, why are we using the Q4000 to lift the blowout preventer? The reason we’re doing that is when the Q4000 was brought in originally it was to operate the manifold on the sea that allowed us to do the – sea bed that allowed us to do the static – excuse me, the dynamic attempt at the top kill and ultimately the static kill that we did by pumping mud and cement into the kill and choke lines. And before that, we were actually using the kill and choke lines to produce and flare off oil at the Q4000. It was never intended to be the primary lifting device. However, it can do it. It just has some constraints on it compared to the Discoverer Enterprise. The reason we are using the Q4000 is that on deck it has the electrical connections and the computers that actually run the yellow pod, which is that control pod that sits down on the blowout preventer that runs all of the hydraulic lines and the valves and operates basically the blowout preventer from the surface. So we pretty much married the ability to operate the blowout preventer yellow pod with the Q4000 at the start of this response and therefore we’re using the Q4000 to lift it and because of that, we’re accepting some limitations on what they can do compared to what the Discoverer Enterprise could do. Is that responsive?

Jim Polson: Yes. The Times Picayune said yesterday there’s a dispute between BP and its landlord in St. Bernard Parish. Do you see that as anything that might affect the response?

Thad Allen: I do not.

Jim Polson: Thank you.

Operator: Your next question comes from Dan Vergano with USA Today.

Dan Vergano: Thanks, Admiral. I was wondering if you could talk about what are the odds of you having to open up manually the rams or sort of second option to pull off the blowout preventer and pieces of pipe or other things still sticking somehow and you know preventing you from wanting to give it an even harder tug to pull it up. Is there any chance that once those rams are manually opened that you’ll be able to pull up the blowout preventer or that somehow they won’t be able to be amenable to being opened after all, you’ve had trouble with the rams from the start of this whole thing?

Thad Allen: Well, we’re optimistic we can remove the blowout preventer without having to open the rams.

One of the things that leads us to believe that is that we – the fragility of the pipe thus far. We’ve gone in and tried to remove the pipe as part of the fishing experiment. It is actually broken and fallen down and it does look like it has a lot of structural integrity left in it. That pipe’s been there and subjected to a lot of forces. Including the attempted dynamic kill and the junk shot and everything else. In the best of all possible worlds, when we lift the blowout preventer off, it will come free with the pipe. The only thing we’re planning on is the contingency that somehow in the cementing of the well, there was some adherence between the pipe and the casing itself would cause the pipe to adhere to it. And even if that is the case, there’s some suggestion that with just a slight additional pull, in this case 80,000 pounds, that pipe could be pulled free. But in the event that neither one of those conditions exist, we are prepared to manually open the rams and lift the blowout preventer off and then basically cut the pipe off and recover that with another vessel to the surface.

Dan Regano: Thanks very much.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Harry Fountain with New York Times.

Harry Fountain: Hello, Admiral. Can you tell me how the current BOP is attached to the well head and if there’s any concern about hydrates or other (inaudible) that might make it difficult to latch?

Thad Allen: Well, the current BOP is attached to the wellhead with the same connector they would use for any similar drilling well. To the extent that hydrates are there, we don’t expect that to be a problem right now. Had we continued to try and fish and get the pipe out of there, there was some concerns that hydrates would be blocking our ability to use a camera and actually operate down there. So I’m not sure that’s an issue. If there’s an issue at all, it’s probably the issue of the condition of the wellhead itself. When the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank it bent the riser pipe over and ultimately the riser pipe was severed from the drill rig. At that point, if you can imagine, as massive as the blowout preventer was and that wellhead was, it probably bent over to some extent and then when the riser pipe separated from the rig it popped back up. It did not pop straight back up and there’s been some attempt to level that, to make sure we could get that as close to vertical as we can. I believe the current estimate right now, it is about two degrees off center line. So as we go in to pull the blow out preventer out, I would say hydrates are not a real big concern. I think the alignment to the true vertical about two degrees off would impact somehow to a very small degree the pull on the BOP as you’re trying to free it. We are aware of it. The engineers have taken that into account. We don’t think it will be a prohibiting condition, but it is something we are aware of.

Two more questions, operator?

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

Vivian Kuo: Hi there, Admiral. Two questions for you. the drill pipe that’s currently hanging beneath the blowout preventer, how integral will that be to evidentiary procedures and follow up on forensic evidence, if any?

And then also, you guys had a lot of other material pieces of equipment on the floor. You had manifolds and you had a subsea riser, what’s happening with all that other equipment?

Thad Allen: Well, the answer to the first question, I’m not sure we know the condition of the pipe. I think the assumption is that it will be material to the investigation; therefore we want to make sure we can retain that if we can. That’s the reason care is being taken to make sure that we can recover the pipe.

Also, we do need to get the blowout preventer removed. There’re two issues we’re trying to deal with here, one is making sure any actions we do take are consistent with the guidance provided by the Department of Justice on the evidentiary guidelines, plus the overriding fact that we need to get a new blowout preventer on top of this well. It insures well pressure integrity so we can finish killing it.

There is a lot of this stuff out there. There’s a manifold sitting on the sea floor that was built specifically to accommodate both the production of the oil and gas and also to accommodate the attempt at the top kill and the static kill. A lot of these devices, I think – this is a personal opinion here. A lot of these devices were built specifically for containment and recovery and production of oil related to this response. I think there’s a lot of discussion going on between the major oil companies in the Gulf and BP regarding future recovery systems to make sure you have the ability to respond to a future incident. So I think everything that’s been engineered and constructed in conjunction with this response is going to get a very close look to whether or not they should be considered as prototypes or interim capability that might be used in the Gulf should that type of capability need to be required again.

Operator: Your final question comes from the line of Harry Weber with the Associated Press.

Harry Weber: Good afternoon, Admiral. Can you talk a little bit about any risks at all of further oil leaking into the environment either directly from pulling up the BOP and the capping stack or by any damage that inadvertently might be caused to the casing, the cement or anything else? I know you all have indicated previously that you don’t really expect that to happen, but you have, I believe, authorized or ordered BP to be prepared for collection if necessary. Can you just talk a little bit about the risks there?

Thad Allen: Well, you are correct, we do believe the risks are small of a hydrocarbon release, but we want to make sure that we’re prepared for all contingencies. One of the reasons we’re putting the new blowout preventer on is to make sure we can pressurize the well and the blow out preventer to the point where when we pressurize the annulus on the intersection if that pressurization resulted in a lifting of the seals at the casing hanger at the top and we had pressure into the BOP that it could withstand. And we think that will indeed be the case.

If that happens, there shouldn’t be any hydrocarbon release into the environment. That said, we are removing the capping stack and at that point the blowout preventer will be open basically and we’ll be relying on the cement plug, about 5000 feet of cement was put in during the static kill. The goal will be then to secure the annulus as quick as we can. But we do not think at this point there’s a significant risk of hydrocarbons being released into the Gulf of Mexico. That said, there’ll be containment vessels on standby just in case they’re needed.

Harry Weber: Thank you.

Thad Allen: Thank you.

Operator: There are no further questions. Admiral Allen, are there any closing remarks.

Thad Allen: None from me, operator. Thank you.