This is the transcript of the daily press briefing given by National Incident Commander Thad Allen on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well. The transcript was distributed by the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Command. Allen briefed from New Orleans.
July 23, 2010
9:30 a.m. CDT
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Admiral Allen: Good morning. Obviously, the weather’s predominating most of our discussions and our activities. I’d like to give you a quick status on what’s going on at the site. I overflew it yesterday coming back from Mobile after my visit there with the Vice President and had a chance to actually see the rigs out there making preparations for what we need to do to deal with the weather.
And let me go through just the major platforms out there and give you a quick update, I’d be glad to answer any questions from there.
Last night, Development Driller II and Development Driller III were directed to detach from their drill sites. This in effect means they’re disconnecting from the lower marine riser package.
They are in the process right now of pulling the riser pipe. For those of you who are familiar, that is a very huge section of pipe. It comes in anywhere from 40 to 60 foot sections, it has to be disassembled and put on deck of the, of the drilling rigs.
That is going on as we speak. The second thing that’s going on is the Q4000 is the one that has the connections to the yellow pod that is a controller on the blowout preventer. That has to be raised as well. So the Q4000 is in the process of recovering the yellow pod.
And that is the interaction between the electrical cables and signals down that operates the hydraulics on the, on the blowout preventer. The goal is: once all the recovery operations are completed, then it’ll be up to the Masters to figure out the best location for storm avoidance to ride out the storm.
The intention right now is to put the vessels in a safe place so they can return as quickly as possible to resume their operations. This is not a hurricane. It is a tropical storm right now, which means the winds are somewhere between 39 and 75 miles an hour.
I think right now the forecast are in the low 40s. So it’ll be a determination by the folks that are operating the vessels where to put them so they minimize the potential risk to the vessels. And of course we would like to get back on team and restart the activity as soon as we can.
The vessels that will remain on scene the longest, and again this will always be subject to the conditions out there and all the people operating the vessels, because they’re responsible for the safety of the vessels.
The seismic survey vessels, the acoustic vessels and the vessels operating the ROVs will stay as long as possible. And if conditions allow it, they will remain through the passage of the storm. If not, we are prepared to leave the well site based on the advice of the science team led by Secretary Chu.
And our conversations with BP we will leave hydrophones at the base of the well to be able to monitor any anomalies that should develop. We’ve also coordinated with Admiral Zukunft, the Local Area Unified Commander for overhead (sorties) by Coast Guard aircraft to make sure there’s, if there’s any leakage or seepage at the surface, we will see that and also coordinating with National Geospatial Intelligence Agency for satellite asset and surveillance.
So while we may have to leave the site—we don’t know we will—we are prepared to optimize our surveillance platforms as we do that. I think the general consensus right now is, and this is a rule of thumb, it’ll all depend on conditions as we get closer. That if we have to evacuate the scene we’re probably looking at a very limited window, something around 48 hours.
Our priorities after the passage of the, of the storm, is to reestablish the operations of Development Driller III. We need to finish the final casing run, which is the last step in advance of drilling into the annulus to begin the bottom kill process. That is also required to stabilize the relief well bore so we can do the static kill from the top which will enhance our ability to do the bottom kill.
And just to repeat the sequence, because I get a lot of questions about this, the reason we’re running the casing first is they want us to put the mud into the top, the hydrostatic kill because if there’s a problem with well integrity, it might effect the relief well because it hasn’t been reinforced by the casing yet.
And right now the relief well is about four feet away from the Macondo well so the casing needs to be run in to make sure we have the reinforcement of the well bore. Hydrostatic mud from the top and then the bottom kill.
We would expect that once the casing is run, within 48 hours we can implement the static kill and will probably take five to seven days for the cement to dry around the casing run to begin to detach the drill into the annulus to continue the bottom kill.
In the meantime our priorities are safety of personnel that dictate the movement of the vessels, and then preservation of the equipment and their ability to come back in and complete their operations as well.
I overflew the site last night. There’s not a lot of oil out there. We have a lot of skimming capacity. We are approaching 800 skimming vehicles, the question now is putting them someplace for their safety and out of harm's way so they can return.
There’s been some question about the fate of the oil during the storm passage. I think there’s a good and a bad part to that. Sometimes the increased activity on the surface—wind and wave activity—can actually help as the emulsification of the oil and the, and the distribution and biodegradation of the oil.
On the other hand, you have the chance to have a storm surge drive that up into beach and marsh areas where it would not have been driven otherwise. So we’re mindful that those are two consequences and prepared to move out and aggressively attack this once the threat is passed through. But in meantime, preservation of life and preservation of equipment are our highest priority.
I’d be glad to take your questions.
Admiral Allen: Well, first of all, I think we all share the same goals and that’s to minimize the impact on life and property and the ability to protect not only people but the environment. So it makes sense to take equipment and protect it.
Admiral Zukunft is working with local parish presidents and local leaders to come up with the best way to do that. It’s really hard to find high ground in some of these parishes, and so we know we need to put this stuff where it can be protected. Exactly where that goes and how that’s done we’re happy to have that negotiation.
But I think in the long run we’re all in agreement that we need to put this equipment where it can be best maintained and be safe for following use. I’m still haunted by the specter of flying in over New Orleans on the fifth, sixth of September as a principal federal official. Looking down into New Orleans to a parking lot full of buses that were flooded and not used for evacuation because they were not moved in time.
David Dishneau: Admiral, this is David Dishneau from The Associated Press. I have a question regarding that seepage that we’ve been trying to, that was identified within three kilometers.
Admiral Allen: Sure.
David Dishneau: And I know that the Interior Department now is trying to (inaudible) identifying that but the AP has developed a map that shows the two old wells within the radius that you described.
And I wondered if I could show you this map and you could point out which of those you believe.
Admiral Allen: You caught me without my glasses. I think I can answer your question. I think we believe it might be attributed to what’s called the Rigl well, r-i-g-l. And we can follow up on (that).
David Mattingly: Admiral, David Mattingly from CNN. Again about the complaints from the parish presidents, is there anything, any sort of protection you can leave in place with this storm coming? Or are they going to be completely unprotected?
Admiral Allen: Well it depends on what you, how you determine protection.
David Mattingly: Booms and barges specifically.
Admiral Allen: Well booms and barges don’t stop storm surge. Booms and barges become victims of storm surge and become incapacitated and can’t be applied in oil spill response once the storms has passed. I think what we’re talking about is moving equipment to high ground so it’s not harmed, so it can be applied as soon as possible.
Now, where is high ground? How do we get it back as quickly as possible? Those are tactical decisions that I’m going to leave to Admiral Zukunft to deal with the local Parish Presidents.
I just talked to him on the phone and I know he’s very involved in that right now. It makes sense, just like it makes sense to evacuate personnel when you hit a certain threshold, when they would be put at risk. You don’t want that equipment to be down there and then have it be damaged where you can’t use it.
And again, there are numerous examples of rolling stock that was not moved before Katrina that became absolutely useless at that point.
David Dishneau: Admiral, if you would back up, you said Development Drill I and Development Drill III.
Admiral Allen: Sorry Development Driller III and Development Driller II. Development Driller III.
David Dishneau: Those are the two main relief wells?
Admiral Allen: Yes, they are.
David Dishneau: And in terms of the other collection equipment—the Q4000, the Helix Producer—have those been pulled off already?
Admiral Allen: No they are, actually they’re all still there because they have to pull the drill strings, the riser pipes. They detached last night but it’s an eight to twelve hour evolution to pull that riser pipe up. Because it comes up in 40 foot sections that have to be disconnected and then stored on the drill rigs because they can’t be moving with that 5,000 feet of riser pipe extending down.
Once that’s done, then we’re allowing 24 hours for what we would call storm evasion where the master of the vessel can put it in the safest place relative to where the storms coming. All that’s going on right now. They haven’t physically left the scene. They’re demobilizing the equipment, raising the riser pipes, and the Q4000 is disconnecting from the yellow pod which is a control element on the blowout preventer.
David Dishneau: Is this a response to a tropical storm threat? Or a hurricane threat? Or are they both the same?
Admiral Allen: Well there’s no predication of a hurricane right now. Tropical storm Bonnie has exceeded the threshold that moves it from a depression to a tropical storm, which is over 39 miles an hour.
It would have to be over 75 miles an hour to become a hurricane. We don’t think it’s going to evolve into a hurricane at this point. It’s on the lower side of the tropical storm, just into the 40 mile an hour range.
But the anticipated gale force winds in the area, plus the sea state, make it advisable for safety reasons not only for the personnel, but the equipment that’s out there to go ahead and move. And these are decisions that are taken by platform based on the survivability in a certain sea state and the winds.
And this was all agreed to and we work very closely with our science team that’s down in Houston right now. Because we want to continue and try and get some seismic data out of there till the last minute if we can. Because it’s very important for the well monitoring.
But also we know that the different companies that are out there—Transocean, Oceaneering, Geco West and so forth—ultimately have the responsibility for the safety of those rigs, and they all have a threshold on which point they need to move out for the safety. And it’s all being coordinated and we have complete visibility on it.
Female: (Inaudible) what is the time frame for moving out Development Driller (inaudible) and also at what point would you make the decision to pull back the vessels (inaudible) what are (inaudible)?
Admiral Allen: The Development Driller II, Development Driller III and the Q4000 are demobilizing or detaching and recovering equipment right now. When they are done with that then they will position themselves in an optimal location regarding the storm track to minimize the effect on them.
And normally if you’re talking about cyclonic effect in the Northern Hemisphere the lower left quadrant is the place where you have the minimum impacts. Now I’m not going to presuppose where the masters will take the vessels, but they will position them where they have the best survivability or best, minimizing the impact and be able to move back in.
It’s, I would say that sometime later on today the Q4000, Development Driller II and Development Driller III will be finished pulling up their equipment and then the people in charge of the vessels at that point will position them in the safest place.
We are hopeful, and again this depends on conditions that are out there, that we can make a couple of seismic and continue to gather information that’ll help us better inform the well integrity that’s been going on.
As you know, because of the success we’ve had in ruling out anomalies and being able to do some of these seismic tests, we’ve agreed to leave the cap on. Which we hope will reduce the impact of, or of the chance we’ll have oil actually being put in the environment while this storm passes.
So as far as the conditions there, we will remain on scene with the seismic vessels and the ROV vessels until they reach the sea state where they think they’re going to need time to evade the storm. My guess is that will be sometime later on today, it’ll probably be after when the Development Driller II and III and Q4000 depart. I can’t give you an exact time because it’ll be conditions based.
David Dishneau: Hi, this is David Dishneau with the Associated Press again, so as I understand what you said from the worst case, you would lose vision on the cap for a period of 48 hours.
Admiral Allen: That’s an estimation right now.
David Dishneau: And then when the, when the vessels return it would be another 48 hours until you can resume work on the relief well?
Admiral Allen: Correct.
David Dishneau: And how will we know, how will the media know if and when we lose eyes on the cap?
Admiral Allen: Well when, if they have to leave scene, we will make an announcement to that effect but if, when we say lose eyes, we’re only going to loose the ROV and the surface vessels that are there. We will, we have hydrophones that are actually listening down the well for things like vibrations that would indicate that there’s a problem with well integrity or some type of a surge.
We will, the Coast Guard has already scheduled overflights, and we’ll be doing aerial surveillance, and of course, we’re going to also use a national asset for satellite surveillance. All that will be available to us.
Lt. Joe Clinker: OK Operator, at this time we’ll take questions from the phone.
Operator: Your first question comes from the line of Anne Thompson of NBC News.
Ms Thompson, your line is open. And your first question comes from Kristen Hays.
Kristen Hays: Good morning, Admiral. Can you tell me which vessels might stay? And at what sea state could they stay?
Admiral Allen: I think in general the last vessels to leave will be the seismic survey vessels which I believe it’s the Geco Topaz right now. I believe we’re in a break right now between the acoustic vessels. The NOAA vessel Pisces has departed; the NOAA vessel Gunter is ready to deploy. I think will, that they will probably just hold off.
And there are three vessels at least out there operating ROVs of various names which I do, are not in front of me right now. But in general it’ll be the Geco Topaz and the ROV vessels that’ll be the last to leave.
Operator: Your next question comes from Joe Danborn of Associated Press.
Joe Danborn: Good morning, Admiral. I was hoping you could clarify a little bit more the functionality of the hydrophones that you were speaking of. They are remotely controlled such that you'll be able to continue monitoring whatever they’re picking up remotely even after you pull all the vessels out of the area.
And who is, who is monitoring that and where? How are those signals being transmitted back to shore or wherever they’re being monitored?
Admiral Allen: Actually, thank you, that was a very good question and I neglected to explain that fully. And I appreciate you asking the question. We are not going to have the wherewithal to send those signals back real time. There’ll be a recorder attached to it. So if something were to occur, we’d be able to do the analysis after the fact, based on what we’re finding and thanks for correcting that.
So if you’re talking about real time, if we actually have a vessel, the vessels have to depart the scene and there’s no service vessels. Our only real time feedback will be aerial surveillance and the satellite imagery.
And thank you for raising that.
Operator: Your next question comes from Bryan Walsh with TIME Magazine.
Bryan Walsh: Hi, Admiral. Looking ahead a bit, at this point it seems if the kill would go forward after the storm that the cap is going to stay. Have you thought at all about whether you will actually be able to get a better flow estimate ultimately? And is that still something you’re looking to do or at that point is that something that now that the cap is likely to stay that won’t be a possibility.
Admiral Allen: That’s a great question too. I’ve gotten that question quite often—if we don’t open the cap again are we going to be able to measure the flow rate? And the answer is, there’s a lot of sources of data out there that we have already, including the pressure readings that have been taken as we transition from the former top hat to the current capping stack.
And other measurements, so we believe there is adequate data out there to establish a flow rate. To be able, to remove that capping stack just for the purpose of measuring a flow rate may or may not be the right thing to do. But we use all available means, data sources we have right now to get our best empirical-based measurement of that flow rate and we’ll continue to do that.
Operator: Next we have (Sara Hussain) from (ASP).
(Sara Hussain): Hi yes. I’m wondering first if you can explain exactly the timeline you’re talking about 48 hours block that we can expect to see happen as the storm gets closer and also whether you’re intending to keep all of the valves on the cap closed or whether there’s any chance that any of them might be open before the vessels depart the area.
Admiral Allen: Just to clarify, we’re estimating right now only because of the winds that are predicted and the seas that are predicted and the passage and when they might start to calm down. We’re roughly estimating that we had to abandon the scene it could be 48 hours before we’re back on. I wouldn’t take that as an absolute it could be more or less depending on the actual conditions.
Regarding opening vents, we’ve already made the decision the vents will remained closed. The capping stack is on. We have confidence over the last six days of testing including searching down and clarifying the anomalies that have been detected. That we are convinced that there’s enough well integrity right now that would allow us with a good basis for a confidence that we could leave the well cap over the passage of this storm and return as quickly as possible.
Operator: Next we have (Gary Taylor) from (State).
(Gary Taylor): Hi, yes. Now that you know that drill ships will have to be redeployed, rather than talk about 48 hours to get started again, can you just give your best guess now on any new target dates for both the static kill and the ultimate bottom kill with the relief well?
Admiral Allen: I can, given the fact that they are on scene and ready to go it will take about 48 hours to lay the casing. And then 48 hours after that we will, we could proceed with the hydrostatic kill of the mud going in the top. And then five to seven days after that, we can proceed with the, actually drilling into the annulus in the bottom kill.
That is the sequence once we’re on scene and ready to go. I can’t give you a timeline that happens before that, because it’s going to be conditions based, based on the wind and the sea state and how fast they can get back and get hooked up, reestablished the riser pipe.
Right now the drill string has been withdrawn to about 10,000 feet and locked in place. So they would have to reconnect the riser pipe, reconnect the drill string and then go back and remove the sub-sea containment device that’s in the, you know the well bore. Then at that point they would be ready to put the casing in.
That would all be dependant on when they get back on scene. And again that would be conditions based.
Operator: Next we have (Kasha Plymouth) (inaudible) of Bloomberg. I do apologize.
(Kasha Keneshe): Yes, thank you. This is (Kasha Keneshe) from Bloomberg. I have three questions about timing again. When do you think the storm will reach the site of the spill? When do you think you know, assuming this is only this one storm, when do you think ships can start returning to the site? And the last one, when do you think you can get, have the new estimate of the flow? Thank you.
Admiral Allen: Well, we think we’re first going to start feeling the effects of this very early tomorrow morning, Saturday morning, and we think the passage of the front will occur sometime over the 40, 48 hour period from early Saturday into early Monday morning.
We can’t be anymore accurate than that right now because the storm is still a little ways out and that’ll be revised based on the updated new forecast and reconnaissance aircraft that will fly on it and again assuming that the storm passes within 48 hours at some point after that we can look to returning the vessels back on scene.
But again this is highly dependant on the weather, the wind, and the assessment of on scene conditions by the folks that are operating the vessels because they will make the final call.
And again regarding the flow rate, as I have said, we have a lot of information from the pressure sensors and the other sensors that are there. We are continuing to develop more information about the integrity of the well itself. We’ll continue to gather information regard, from the — once we get to the point that we can do the hydrostatic kill.
That will tell us for instance if we have a precipitous drop in pressure when the mud goes in. And will tell us maybe there really is a leak but it’s not been producing the hydrocarbons we thought might be coming out, because we have not detected the anomaly. So while we may or may not take the cap off in the future based on conditions we feel there’s a, we’ll use all available evidence and empirical information we have to establish a flow rate.
And right now it is between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day, that can be narrowed or get a more accurate range within that. We’ll continue to do that with all the information that is available.
Lt. Joe Clinker: And Operator, this will be our last question.
Operator: We have Zunaira Zaki, ABC News.
Zunaira Zaki: Admiral, I just wanted to talk a little bit more about the satellite and aerial information that you'll be able to get during this storm. As I understand it, and please correct me if I’m wrong, you won’t be able to establish anything about the condition of the well through that—just whether oil will be flowing or not. Is that right or am I wrong?
Admiral Allen: That’s correct. We’ll see indications if oils coming to the surface or we have an integrity problem we will see it with aerial surveillance or satellite surveillance.
In effect, we’ve assessed what we feel is the integrity of the well to date and we’ve done extensive seismic and acoustic testing around the well head itself. We’ve run down all the anomalies associated with what we’ve found and either ruled out the anomalies, identified the source, in some cases leakage. The stack or the blowout preventer itself due to seals or gaskets that are having issues but are not consequential to the, to the safety, integrity of the well.
So we have no anomalies that have not been run down and investigated and been discussed between BP and the science team. The main issue on well integrity going into this period of time has to do with the low pressure we encountered when this started. And that involves a discussion about whether or not the reservoir had been depleted which would account for the low pressure when we cap the well in.
Extensive conversations regarding that have started to come up with reasons why the well might be depleted, and we haven’t exhausted all of those. And those discussions will remain and that’s the reason the seismic testing will continue.
We’re trying to get, we’re trying to create if you will a virtual 3D MRI of the geological formations surrounding the well itself and exhaust the fact that there might be a pocket of hydrocarbons that would escape that we haven’t found yet that would account for the low pressure, or in the absence of finding those, would support the assertion that the reservoir was depleted and that resulted in the, in the low pressure readings we found.
But again we are, we were all confident enough, based on the resolution of the anomalies that were encountered, that it was in the best interest of the, of the operation and minimizing the impact on the environment to keep the well capped as we move through the storm passage.
(Zunaira Zaki): Thank you.
Lt. Joe Clinker: OK Operator, thank you very much. Thank you all for joining us.
Operator: Thank you. This concludes today’s conference ladies and gentlemen you may now all disconnect.