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Transcript of Adm. Thad Allen's July 26 briefing on the BP oil disaster

This is the transcript of retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen's briefing with reporters Monday, July 26, on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He was joined by Adm. James Galloway of the U.S. Publich Health Service. The transcript was distributed by the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center.

July 26, 2010

3:30 p.m. EDT

Admiral Allen: Thank you, Megan. Jim, come on over.

I'm joined today at the briefing by Admiral Jim Galloway, U.S. Public Health Service. His normal assignment is as the regional health administrator, region five Chicago, but based on a series of meetings that I've had with Secretary Sebelius and the Surgeon General, he's been assigned to my staff and now holds the title of senior health official to the National Incident Command.

I'll let him make a few comments regarding our ongoing work with HHS, and then I'll provide an operational update.


Jim Galloway: OK, thank you.

Thank you, Admiral Allen. It's really a pleasure and an honor to work with you.

My role at the National Incident Command is to try to further integrate and synergize the efforts between the oil response and recovery efforts, along with our health efforts.

We certainly recognize that the full impacts of the oil spill may not be known for some time, and it's essential that HHS is there as we move forward, monitoring and – and – and ensuring safety of workers, the general public, and responders.

HHS basically works in – in five major ways, first of all, to – to prevent injury, illness, as well as exposure to oil and oil products; secondly, to ensure seafood safety, of vital importance; thirdly, to monitor the environment, including the air, the water, the sediment, seafood; to facilitate access to health care; and, finally, and one of the most important aspects is to support our community members.

We're clear and we recognize that the oil spill can have long-term behavioral impacts on the – on the community members involved. Under the leadership of our surgeon general, Dr. Regina Benjamin, we're working to ensure that individuals who may feel emotional distress as a result of this recognize the early-warning symptoms and find ways to cope with the impact of this disaster.

Thank you.

Admiral Allen: Thank you, Admiral Galloway. Thank you for your service and your assistance to me over these past few weeks as we've tried to focus in on the larger impacts of the – of the response.

As you know, we went through a weekend where we had some heavy weather come through. It was less than we had expected. Yesterday, we had two overflights of the area, first with local political leaders from Louisiana, with Admiral Paul Zunkunft, our local commander down there, and then an embedded media flight to overfly the source of the well itself and then fly the coastline.

There's diminished oil out there because of the lack of any discharge since we have capped the well. We are putting out as much skimming equipment as we can close to shore. We have raised our total skimming capability to 794 skimmers, which is significantly more than we had just several weeks ago, and we continue to be vigilant looking for oil out there, and we'll continue to do that.

A number of aircraft sorties attempting to locate any oil that might be there and follow up whether it was further dispersed by the storm or relocated in some cases where it was at and maybe moved up or down the beach by the storm action itself.

Most importantly, the well has been capped, as you know. We were able to attend it throughout the passage of the depression. We continue to monitor it. The monitoring goes on in several different aspects. We have visual monitoring going on with the remote-operated vehicles. We are monitoring the temperature, which is an indication that there might be any movement of product in the well itself. That is maintaining stable at around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

We have geophones that can pick up vibrations at the base of the well, and we are monitoring that. We have hydrophones for acoustic signals, and we are listening there, as well.

We've been very, very focused on gaining better seismic and acoustic information regarding the actual make-up of the formation around the wellhead as it relates to potential well integrity.

To that end, yesterday, we were able use the Gecko Topaz to run a seismic run. They are doing that again today. And we actually have two NOAA vessels, the NOAA Pisces and the Gordon Gunter who are operating within 1,500 meters and outside 1,500 meters in tandem, taking acoustic signals, as well.

That in combination is giving us a very, very good picture of not only the seafloor, but the strata down into the formation as it relates to well integrity. We continue to have confidence through the monitoring and the detection of anomalies and the investigation of those anomalies that we have well integrity as we move forward.

The pressure is above 6,900 PSI and continues to slowly rise. These are all good indications that we have well integrity and we can move forward.

Well, what I'd like to talk about today in a little bit more detail – and I have had questions over the last few days – is exactly what's going to happen moving ahead regarding the relief well. And, of course, that's critically important to all of us right now because the next thing we need to do is get this well in position where we can make the intercept and permanently kill this well from the bottom.

So what I'd like to take you through is what's going to happen in the next couple of days. We've given you a couple of estimates. I've talked to our engineers working at BP in Houston with them, and I'm going to come up with the following sequence of events to kind of describe what you can expect to happen in the next few days.

Between now and Wednesday, two things are going to happen. First of all, we're going to latch up with the lower marine riser package with the existing well, and that's being done today. At that point, we're going to run two different drill strings. The first drill string will be run down to pick up the subsea containment device – or what they call a packing device that was left there to protect the well when we vacated.

Once that's happened, we are going to flush the system, check the blowout preventer, and then make sure the well is ready for further activity. At that point, we will then make up a new drill string around it clear to the bottom of the well bore, and then we will run fluids down through the drill pipe and back up to make sure we flush out any sediment from the formation.

This is all in advance of being able to lay the final casing run. That will take place between Monday and Wednesday of this week. Starting on Wednesday, we hope to run the final casing or that internal pipe that provides well integrity. That will be about a 2,000-foot casing run. It will begin on Wednesday and will probably take through Saturday or Sunday, when we will cement the casing into place and will take the cement about 8 to 12 hours to set up.

At that point, we will be ready to move on to do two things. First of all, we will then shift to pumping mud and cement down the top of the well, what we call the static kill. That's an attempt to fill the inside of the well from the top down with mud and then cement to secure it and make it stable.

That will be followed then by drilling into the annulus, which is the area outside the casing pipe at the base of the Macondo well, and we will attempt to then kill it from the bottom. That will take place probably five to seven days after we cement the casing in next Monday, so the sequence of events as follows.

Monday through Wednesday of this week, preparing the well. Wednesday through Saturday and Sunday, running the casing pipe to be in a position on Monday, the 2nd of August, to begin the static kill, and then approximately five days later to begin the bottom kill.

So at the end of week after next, we have the potential to enter the annulus and begin killing the well.

And with that, I'd be glad to take any questions you may have for me.

(Sandy Jordless): Thank you, Admiral. (Sandy Jordless), ABC News. So, you'd mentioned that there isn't a lot of oil left out there. Is there still work for clean-up crews? If not, are they being let go, essentially? I mean, is this over?

Admiral Allen: No, there is work for clean-up crews. There's not a lot of oil at the source because there hasn't been any oil discharged from the wellhead, but as I've – as I've told everybody since the start of the spill, what we have is an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil, and the challenge is to find out where they're at right now, because they're widely dispersed, and get skimming on top of them so they don't come ashore.

In the process of doing the flights yesterday, we found one rather large isolated patch of oil to the southwest of Grand Isle and then directed skimming units to that. We'll continue aggressive shoreline clean-up and, where we can back in the marshes, whatever we need to do to remediate where oil has come to shore.

That will still be aggressive. There's still oil out there. We still have the possibility that the shore will be impacted, I guess, for the next four to six weeks, so we'll continue to monitor that as we move forward.

There will be an issue at some point about the vessels of opportunity, the amount of work that's available regarding skimming opportunities. We are looking at other things like surveillance, maybe using them to do some testing, and we will try and, to the maximum extent possible, employ the vessel of opportunity, and we'll be working that over the next couple of weeks if we need to adjust how we utilize them.

(Sandy Jordless): Just one more. Can you give us a sense of what's beneath the surface beyond, you know, what we're not able to get to beyond our skimming capabilities? Is it columns of oil, dispersed oil?

Admiral Allen: Well, we've had several discussions with Jane Lubchenco and the folks at NOAA about this, and they continue to do a lot of research out there. What they're doing is they're actually testing the water columns in the Gulf for presence of hydrocarbons.

If you can imagine making a bunch of runs through where you're trying to test the presence of hydrocarbons down all the way to depth, we're slowly building up slices that are creating what I would call an aggregate MRI of the water column in the gulf and the presence of hydrocarbons. If you look at the two or three miles right around the well site, there's a certain concentration of hydrocarbons, but as you get out to 10 or 15 miles, they drop off dramatically where they're just trace elements, not to the point where they would be of concern.

That said, we do find densities from time to time, if you can imagine, the equivalent of an underwater mist that is lighter than the water itself. That tends to form, and it's almost like a plume type of a presence. And we go out there and we test it. We haven't found substantial concentrations of hydrocarbons.

We know there's a lot of concern out there about the fact of undersea oil that may not have been located. We continue to look for that. And NOAA is being very aggressive right now in their hydrocarbon testing of the water column.

Megan Moloney: Operator, at this time, we're prepared to take questions please.

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

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

Harry Webber: Thank you for taking the call, Admiral. I appreciate it. I have a two-part question here.

First, in your timeline – thank you very much for that – you said roughly that the bottom kill should start by your timeline around August the 7th to August the 9th. When is that going to be done? In other words, when do you expect the pressure to be zero and this all to be over?

And, two, you said yesterday that you speak several times a day with Bob Dudley. I'm curious how often you've spoken or met with Tony Hayward, and can you give us an example of how they differ, for better or worse, in their approach to the oil spill response?

Admiral Allen: Well, first of all, on the way that this will work, there are two potential actions that have to be taken on the bottom kill. There are two concentric circles we are concerned about. The first one is called the annulus. That is the area between the pipe casing and the wellbore. The second is what's inside the pipe itself.

Now, we are hoping that with the static kill we can fill as much of the pipe up as possible from the top down, but you can't get to the annulus from the top down. You have to do that from the bottom up. So when we enter the wellbore, the Macondo well, we will first try and fill the annulus full of mud and then cement it in.

When that cement dries, then we will go back and drill right through it again and into the pipe, and we will ascertain at that point whether or not the top or static kill had actually filled it or we need to do more, and that's when we will know absolutely that the well has been killed.

The analogy that I use is like hollow tree rings, where you go into the first hollow tree ring and you completely fill it up, then you back out, and all of a sudden the tree is smaller in diameter, and then you go back into the internal circle, and you take care of that.

So what we're hoping to do is, by the time we go into the annulus, have as much of the well filled from the top down as possible, but we won't know until we actually enter the casing, the steel casing after we filled the annulus, that there will be zero pressure in the well.

Regarding my interaction, I talk to Bob Dudley when I need to, any hour of the day or night, and I've woken him up on several occasions for very significant items. And from time to time, he's woken me up, as well.

The communication is frequent. It was also frequent with Tony Hayward when he occupied that position. My communication with senior leadership is very robust, because we need to do that to make sure we optimize this response. So I would say there's no material difference in my level or frequency of communication with either one.

Next question?

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

Vivian Kuo: Hi there, Admiral. You said that you're projecting Saturday-Sunday for the casing itself to be actually set. Will the final 100 feet of the drilling run be done at the same time as the static kill?

Admiral Allen: The final 100 feet of the drilling run will be done after the casing has been set, and that can be done while they're arranging for the static kill. We are offset about four feet right now and 100 above – I'm sorry. Let me go back.

Once the casing is run – and it'll be about 2,000 feet of casing – at the end of the casing, there will be about another 100 feet to be drilled just through the wellbore itself, and it is offset by about four feet. And the incline going down, there's about 2.9 degrees.

While they are doing the static kill, we can proceed with the bottom kill to be prepared when the static kill is done to proceed.

Was that responsive?

Next question?

Operator: And the next question comes from the line of David Dishneau with the Associated Press.

David Dishneau: Hello, Admiral. Yesterday you said you thought that only mud and no cement would be used in the static kill. Today you're saying mud and cement. Is that the final word on that now?

Admiral Allen: It's actually more than that. And thank you for bringing it up. There is going to be cement at the end. There's also going to be some mixture of nitrogen and some other products there.

I went back and I checked after my statement yesterday and added the cement. There will also be some other materials there, and we can give you a detailed listing of it. And thank you for bringing it to our attention. I did go back and check, and it was going to be mud and cement, plus some mixture of some other liquids and nitrogen, as well. And we can give you a complete list of that.

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

Jim Polson: Admiral, when you look ahead over that next four to six weeks, can you give us a sense of whether or not you're going to be, say, ramping down offshore skimmers and building up people on the shoreline? And also, if you can give any indication of when you would be able to get ahead of the oil that's hitting on the shoreline, instead of having more and more just about every day when people go out and do their surveys?

Admiral Allen: Well, if it stands right now and the cap stays in place and we're able to kill the well, then we've seen the amount of oil that's going to be discharged. Again, we're not going to declare any victory on this until that well is killed.

That said, when this spill first started, it took about four to six weeks for the oil to actually start impacting shore, and this can vary on the wind and the current conditions. So we fully expect that – and if you look around the 15th of July when we were able to put the cap in place, I think we can expect for four to six weeks after that – or maybe even longer – depending on the weather conditions for oil to continue to come ashore.

And, again, as I've said before, it's in hundreds of thousands of patches. Our goal is to try and find it. Some of these patches are only sheen at this point. It becomes very weathered and sometimes is not skimmable, but our goal would be to keep as much of it off the beaches as we can. We've got a great skimmer force out there right now.

We'll continue to apply them until we think they can't be of use anymore. And our intent is to try and do much – as much of this at sea, so we're not dealing with the impacts on the beach or in the marsh areas in particular.

That said, at some point, we hope – I think everybody hopes there will be no oil on the water. And at that point, we're going to have to figure out how we make a transition in our resources.

We've set up a couple teams to start looking at that. I'll probably start a round of meetings myself with local leaders to talk about how we deal with vessels of opportunity, how they're best applied, how we can jointly continue to do what we need to do out there.

But let me make this really clear to everybody, no matter what the demand signal is for vessels of opportunity, no matter how much oil is out on the water, the commitment to continue this clean-up ashore, in the marshes, to continue to make sure that we all agree on how clean is clean, that we hold BP accountable, that this will continue far after the relief well is completed, that is our total commitment. That will be our commitment. And how exactly that transition takes place, we will involve the local community leaders and make that as robust a discussion as we can.

Operator: And your next question comes from the line of Jeffrey Kofman from ABC News.

Jeffrey Kofman: Admiral, thank you for taking my question. Help me here a little bit. You mentioned that there are hundreds of thousands of areas of oil, and yet yesterday in the two overflights, one – it's my understanding – saw no oil and the other one say one concentration of oil, but nothing more.

In talking to the responders, the vessels of opportunity down here in the Venice and Buras area, they're telling us they're just not seeing oil, there's just no oil to pick up now. Are we missing something or is the oil disappearing, is it degrading, is it being reabsorbed into the environment? What's going on?

Admiral Allen: Well, what's happening is it's – it's really disaggregating beyond patches. And maybe patches is a misnomer on my part. What we're seeing are mats, patties, small concentrations, very hard to detect from the air, but they're out there. If you get in close to shore, you can see them. When the tide comes in and goes out, you'll have oil into the beaches, in some cases, with tar balls or mats.

What we're trying to figure out is, where is all the oil at? And what can we do about it? There's still a lot of oil that's unaccounted for, if you look at the total amount that's been released, what's been skimmed, what's been burned, what we think is happening with evaporation and dispersion.

So we need to be ever vigilant and make sure that we've run down and found any oil that's on the surface. The problem is that, even though we know where it's at, sometimes it's not skimmable because it's just a sheen. Sometimes it's slightly below the surface because the specific gravity is to the point where it is not floating on the top, and that can change, depending on the temperature of the water and the time of day.

So it's becoming a very elusive bunch of oil for us to find and do anything about, but I think we need to be about the business of trying to do that and do as best – the best job we can offshore so we're not dealing with this on the beaches or the marshes.

So when I say hundreds of thousands of patches, it is literally that. But they're not as large as they used to be. They're probably more disaggregated and they're harder to locate, but there's definitely oil out there and we need to be prepared to deal with it.

Megan Moloney: Operator, we'll take a final two questions.

Operator: OK. And your next question comes from the line of Richard Fausset with the Los Angeles Times.

Richard Fausset: Hi, Admiral. There have been reports of very large undersea plumes of oil thousands of feet below the ocean's surface. So when you say there's the possibility of the shore being impacted for four to six weeks, how do you come up with that four to six week number? And are you taking into account these very large plumes of oil that are out there and very difficult to sort of gauge where they're going?

Admiral Allen: You know, that's a great question. The four to six weeks I'm using comes from what we actually observe. When oil started coming to the surface, it was four to six weeks before we had shore impact. So where the well was located – and based on the environmental conditions – it didn't come ashore right away. It took some time to do that.

For that same reason, once the well has been capped and we know there's no oil coming out, it's going to take some time for that amount of oil to either biodegrade, come ashore, be skimmed, be burned. We're not using dispersants anymore, so the fate of the oil kind of – you have to aggregate all that out there together. And so time-wise, that's about what it took for it to hit shore when the oil was first released from the well.

What we're going to continue to watch for is the oil we can't see. And your point is obvious. If there's oil out there and it's subsurface – and we're continuing to look for that with some of the testing that NOAA is doing for hydrocarbons in the water column.

But the other thing is, we're going to have tar balls and other kind of impacts are going to go on for a long, long time. And we need to be prepared to go back.

And the process will be something like this. We will establish by agreement with local leaders and the trustees about how clean is clean. And if we find out, for instance, next spring – and they're trying to groom a beach at Gulf Shores with a front-end loader and they come on a massive oil that's a foot underground, and we test it, and it's related to the Macondo well, BP will be directed to go out and clean it up again.

So the bulk of this – the bulk of the oil, I believe, should act the same way it did to begin with, four to six weeks. We should know where it's at. But the ultimate impact of this spill, the amount of tar balls, mats, patties, and so forth, and whether or not oil surfaces at a later date will be the subject of long-term surveillance, and where we need to go back to keep our – our agreement on how clean is clean, we will dispatch BP and we will do that.

Megan Moloney: And, operator, we will take a final call at this point.

Operator: And the last question comes from David Hilzenrath with the Washington Post.

David Hilzenrath: Thank you. Admiral, could you please elaborate on the static kill? What is its purpose? Why do you plan to proceed with it before the bottom kill? And what are the risks and benefits associated with it?

Admiral Allen: The static kill will be accomplished using the Q4000 and the – and the kill line off the existing blowout preventer. This is one-half of the system we used to do the top kill.

The top kill was not effective because we had no back pressure. In other words, we had an open lower marine riser package, and we don't know how much mud actually went down the hole or how much went up and actually went out into the ocean environment. And we were unable to maintain pressure once we stopped pumping mud. That meant the hydrocarbons kept coming up and overpowering the mud.

We could keep the oil suppressed and actually push it down, and we were successful in – in maintaining the mud flow down to the point where no oil came up, but we could not stop and not have the oil come up.

So that told us one of two things. Either the mud was going up out of the marine riser pipe or potentially it could have been exiting somewhere down below, indicating there might be a problem with well integrity. And we really didn't know what the difference between the two of those was.

Right now, we have a capped well. So if we put mud into the well that's not got no place to go up, it should fill the well up. And if for some reason we see a precipitous drop in pressure, it will tell us unequivocally that we have a well integrity problem that will have to be addressed from the bottom kill.

If we don't have a well integrity problem and the well is intact, we will basically take in a good part of the well and filled it from the top down. That will be that much less room inside the well that would have to be filled from the bottom up, therefore, increasing the effectiveness and the chances of success for the bottom kill.

Was that responsive?

Megan Moloney: Thank you, everyone, for joining us today here at HHS. And for those of you on the call, that concludes today's press briefing.

Operator: And that concludes today’s conference call. You may now disconnect.


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