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Transcript of Adm. Thad Allen's Aug. 18 briefing on BP's oil leak

This is the transcript from Wednesday's teleconference press briefing by Admiral Thad Allen, National Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill with Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA Administrator. The transcript was distributed by the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center.

August 18, 2010

11:15 a.m. CDT

Thad Allen: Thank you, Jeff.

I'm here in Cedar Key, Florida, with Dr. Jane Lubchenco. This morning, we were out off Cedar Key, where we participated in the release of Kemp's Ridley turtles that had been rehabilitated. Dr. Lubchenco will be telling you about that more later.

It was a great event. It allowed us to participate with these folks that have put so much time and effort and personal passion and resources into recovering this wildlife. And it was a great morning down here at Cedar Key.

Let me give you an update on what's going on in the well and then I'll pass the microphone to Jane Lubchenco for other comments.

We continue to assess the condition of the well. The science team continues to meet with the BP engineers. There are a couple of things we are doing to reduce the timeline for what will occur after decisions are made. One is the direction I provided, to take the blowout preventer from Development Driller II, the second relief well, and make preparations to bring that to the scene. Whether we put a new blowout preventer before or after the bottom kill will be needed, so this is an effort that will have to be expended anyway.

In addition to that, we are bringing the Discoverer Enterprise in over the well. And over the next day, we will use the Q4000 and the Discoverer Enterprise to actually circulate any extraneous materials and liquids that are in the blowout preventer, the area of the well above the cement plug, and the capping stack to purge that system completely. And when we are done, we will fill it with seawater, and then we will do an ambient pressure test with the same type of liquid that's inside the blowout preventer that is outside the blowout preventer to ascertain if there are any issues regarding well integrity with the annulus and any types of leakage.

As you know, we've dropped the pressure in the capping stack down significantly. We see slight pressure drops throughout the day. We attribute that to gas that is coming up from residual product that's in the well and escaping through those leaks that are in the flanges, the blowout preventer and the capping stack. Our intent is to flush that entire system, fill it with seawater, equalize the type of material that's inside and outside, and do an ambient pressure test.

This will be one of the final vital signs that we will need in order to make a determination on how to go forward and whether or not to proceed with the bottom kill through the annulus with some kind of a pressure control on the existing capping stack and blowout preventer or actually bring in a blowout preventer from the DDII and put that on before we do the bottom kill.

And with that, I'd like to ask Jane Lubchenco to give an update on our operations this morning on the release of the Kemp's Ridley turtles. And then we'll go to questions.

Jane Lubchenco: Thanks, Admiral.

Hello, everyone. Let me just begin by saying that we at NOAA remain extremely concerned about the impact of this spill on the health of the Gulf of Mexico and the millions of people who depend on it for their livelihoods and enjoyment. NOAA, along with our partners in the academic and private research institutions and other federal agencies, remain vigilant in our efforts to track and monitor the oil from the marshes to the open ocean, from the surface to the bottom of the gulf. And we will remain in the gulf for as long as it takes to assess the damage and restore the ecosystems.

This morning, Admiral Allen and I joined some of our state and private institution partners for a joyful occasion. We were able to release 23 Kemp's Ridley turtles. These turtles had been rescued from offshore. Most of them had been moderately to heavily oiled when found. This effort to recover them was very significant and very aggressive effort involving many partnerships with states and federal partners, as well as fishermen and private institutions around the Gulf, and has been a very significant effort.

These turtles were taken back to shore in rehab facilities. They were de-oiled. They have been cared for and rehabilitated and are now healthy and ready to be released back into the wild.The 23 Kemp's Ridleys that we released today are the first of a number. We released them off Cedar Key because this is an area that has not received oil, is in very good condition, and is prime habitat for Kemp's Ridleys of this age, which we estimate to be about one to three years old.

As you know, Kemp's Ridleys are one of five endangered species of turtles that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico. They, after being seriously or declared endangered in 1973, and with good cooperation between the United States and Mexico, have been making a significant comeback because of good attention to using turtle excluder devices on fishing vessels, such as shrimp trawls, but also paying attention to habitat that is important for their nesting.

The oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon spill, had a significant impact on Kemp's Ridleys, and so this effort to recover them, rehabilitate them, and now release them is, in fact, very exciting and good news for the turtles.

And with that, we're happy to take any questions.

Operator: At this time, I would like to remind everyone, in order to ask a question, please press star, then the number one on your telephone keypad. We'll pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster.

Your first question comes from the line of Harry Weber.

Harry Weber: Admiral Allen, Harry Weber with the Associated Press. Thanks for taking this call. Am I wrong about this? It sounds, as we're talking here today, that you don't really at this point still have a firm idea about when you're going to be able to give the order to continue drilling and move towards the interception and bottom kill.

And can you provide a little bit more detail around why we're not at the point yet where you all have the ability to do that, that you don't have a decision yet on the best course forward on relieving the pressure? And I would have thought that that was something the engineers all along would have been able to predict, and I'm curious why there wasn't a plan in place earlier on, with regard to relieving that pressure build-up that you've been talking about the last few days.

Thad Allen: OK, number one, there wasn't a plan in place because this has never been done before. And, number two, I have never given you a timeline. I've always said this will be conditions-based. We're concerned about the vital signs of this well. We continue to be concerned about the vital signs.

Our first goal is to do no harm. We are doing extensive consultation between our engineering team and the BP engineers. We are moving to prepare the well, the BOP, and a new blowout preventer for either course of action, whether it is putting a blowout preventer before or after we do the bottom kill. We will know when we have satisfied ourselves that we know the vital signs and we've removed every piece – any shadow of a doubt of any information we could develop from top side before we go forward, and it's nothing more than an overabundance of caution in being responsible and doing our jobs.

Next question?

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

Kristen Hays: Yes, hello, Admiral. I've got two questions. The flush out and all that, are you looking to bring the pressure to the same place where it is just outside the BOP, indeed, the amount of pressure there is just from the water? And, second of all, I'm wondering, are scientists considering possibly just turning that drill bit parallel to the Macondo well and just drilling straight into the reservoir to pump mud and cement there, rather than intersecting the well at all?

Thad Allen: We're trying to do two things while the evaluation of alternatives is going on. We have the opportunity to develop more vital signs for the well, one of them being to remove all foreign objects – all foreign liquids from the current well, flush it, and fill it with seawater, so we have exactly the same density of material inside and outside the BOP that will allow us to do an ambient pressure test to see if there's any kind of pressure, a rise or fall related to something other than what we believe now to be the gas bubbles that are escaping and causing the drop in pressure.

If we go to the ambient pressure test and there's no significant change in pressure, we'll have removed another variable in what's causing the – even the minor pressure fluctuations we've been encountering. That will tell us more about the condition of the well and the condition of the annulus as we move towards making the decision between moving the blowout preventer before or after the relief well.

And I'm sorry. Could you repeat the second question again?

Kristen Hays: Yes, sir, I'm sorry about that. I'm just wondering if there's any discussion of possibly just turning the drill bit parallel to the Macondo well, drilling straight into the reservoir, instead of intersecting the well and pumping mud and cement into the reservoir to plug it that way?

Thad Allen: I'm not an oil field engineer, but the prospect of drilling directly into that reservoir with the relief well I think would be very ill-informed at this time. There's an issue of how much pressure is built up in that reservoir. This is a relief well. It wasn't made to be an exploration or a production well. It was made specifically to intercept the annulus and kill this well from the bottom.

I will double check with the BP engineers and my engineers, but I would think that would be patently not a good idea to do.

Kristen Hays: OK, thank you, sir.

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

Vivian Kuo: Hi there, Admiral. Despite all the tests that have been conducted and all the fishing and shrimping areas that have subsequently been reopened, it seems that there's a widespread belief and fear amongst fishermen about the presence of subsea oil influencing their catch. What, if anything, can be done to allay those fears, especially with some of the new studies that have come out this week?

Thad Allen: Well, let me answer, and I'll see if Jane Lubchenco wants to add anything. First of all, regarding seafood safety, any area that's been open for fishing has been the result of a three-step program that's been implemented. One is how long the area has been free of oil. The second one is sensory testing through lab testing, according to FDA standards and in conjunction with local labs in a consortium. Any seafood that's been brought out of areas where it's been tested is safe for the public. There's nothing wrong with Gulf seafood, because it's tested probably more than any seafood that's being removed right now.

Let me make a comment on oil that may be out there in other areas, and then I'll let Jane Lubchenco make a comment, if she would like.

Last Friday, I signed a directive that intended to unify our federal effort and then combine with state and local entities that are conducting research out there in our attempt to understand the presence of hydrocarbons in a subsea area. This is intended to be a government-wide, whole-of-government effort, engaging our partners in and around the Gulf, that can only help us in the near term regarding any presence of hydrocarbons in the water column that can lead the way for longer-term monitoring of sampling that'll be required as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and long-term recovery.


Jane Lubchenco: Let me just emphasize what Admiral Allen has said, and that is that the seafood that is available, is being sold on the market is being tested extensively. We're very carefully following the protocols that were agreed upon between Food and Drug Administration and the states and NOAA.

And the seafood that is coming out of the Gulf in those areas that are open is highly tested and is safe. I would remind you that 22 percent of federal waters in the gulf remain closed because we have not yet determined that it is safe to eat seafood from those areas.

Our first line of defense in protecting the integrity of seafood safety all along has been closing areas and then reopening them only after there's no oil present, there's no oil that is expected to be present, and they have passed both sensory and chemical tests. And that has been the case for the areas that we have reopened.

We are continuing to sample those areas that have already been reopened to make sure that the seafood remains safe. And I think it's important to recognize that fin fish are capable of metabolizing the hydrocarbons that might be of concern to human health. They process them. They rid their bodies of them. The flesh does not retain hydrocarbons like it does something like mercury.

So hydrocarbons can be metabolized by fin fish very rapidly. It can be metabolized by shrimp and crabs more slowly and by shellfish, such as oysters, the slowest.

So we are testing each of those different categories – fin fish, shrimp and crabs, and, thirdly, shellfish – separately, because we understand – so the testing is cognizant of the different physiologies of the different species. And we are very careful in opening to specify that an area has been determined safe for fin fish, for example, or for everything.

I'd also like to emphasize the importance of the announcements that Admiral Allen made last Friday, specifically a very significantly enhanced monitoring effort that we are ramping up in the Gulf that was in partnership with all of the federal agencies, but also the academic institutions and research institutions in the Gulf, to really understand better exactly where subsurface oil might be and how rapidly it is naturally biodegrading.

We know from all the sampling that we have been doing that the oil that is subsurface is highly dispersed, it's in parts per million in the water column, and is – appears to be biodegrading relatively quickly. That said, we want to have more comprehensive and better information, so we are launching this very significant effort that will really nail down and give us much better answers to the oil that is still out there.

Thad Allen: And if you'd like to contact our Joint Information Center, they could provide you a copy of the order I signed last Friday.

Next question? And we'll take two more.

Operator: Your next question comes from the line of Kasie Klimansinska with Bloomberg News.Kasie Klimansinska: Hi, thank you for taking my question. Admiral, could you please provide like a timeline of what exactly will happen around the Macondo well perhaps over the next five days, by the end of this week?

Thad Allen: I will give you a sequence of events. If I give you a timeline and it changes, we will have a credibility problem, so I will give you a sequence of events.

Kasie Klimansinska: OK.

Thad Allen: We are in the process right now of evaluating alternatives on how to intercept the annulus and finish the relief well. Our scientists, working with the BP engineers, have determined that we need to understand the annulus, area outside the well casing, and between that and the wellbore, how that will react to the pressure of the mud that enters that area when we intercept the well.

We are concerned that a pressure going up the annulus could push through a seal at the top, enter the blowout preventer in the capping stack, and might cause a problem to the existing combination of the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer and the capping stack that's been installed and the connecting spool that joins them together.

So we have asked for two detailed courses of action. One is how we would relieve pressure should it build up in the current stack configuration, so there would not be any kind of a threat to the integrity of the annulus or the blowout preventer itself, or, number two, to go ahead and remove the current blowout preventer and the capping stack, replace it with a blowout preventer from the Development Driller II, which is drilling the second relief well. We've actually ordered that to be moved because it's going to be needed in any account, that will be the new blowout preventer that goes on the well.

When we decide which course of action will be taken, we will then make those preparations, whether it is putting the pressure, risk mitigation device on the current stack, or moving a new blowout preventer in. Once either one of those is in place and we're assured we've minimized the risk as much as we can from a pressure problem in the annulus, we will then direct the relief well to go forward.

So that will all be conditions-based, and I can't tell you how many days it will take to do that. We will do it when we're comfortable moving ahead.

In the meantime, we are going to do an ambient pressure test. We're going to flush everything out of the blowout preventer and the capping stack, fill it full of seawater, and continue to look for any pressure anomalies or deviations.

Once we give the go-ahead to complete the relief well, it will take approximately four days to drill the final remaining amount and intercept the annulus. And it'll take several days after that to finish cementing and conduct the pressure test.

Last question?

Operator: Your final question comes from the line of Jeff Young with PRI's Living on Earth.

Jeff Young: Hi. That's PRI's Living on Earth. Question for Dr. Lubchenco. How do you account for the discrepancies between what the University of Georgia and University of South Florida reporting regarding subsea oil and what you and others were reporting just a few days earlier?

Jane Lubchenco: Jeff, we have known and said all along that there is dispersed oil subsurface. And by our calculations, that's around a quarter of the oil that was released.

We know that that oil is out there. It is dilute in parts per million to less than that. But dilute and dispersed does not mean benign, which is why we continue to be concerned about the possible impacts it may have had or is having.

The University of Georgia report is quite different in the sense that they did not account for the 800,000 barrels of oil that was recovered directly from the well. And, therefore, they're (inaudible) all the math is different. It makes all the percentages higher (inaudible).

Secondly, the number that they used for the percentage of the oil (inaudible) evaporated is very, very low. They suggested only 12 percent of the oil had been evaporated. In our calculations, we felt that 24 percent, 25 percent of the oil being evaporated was a very conservative number. There are reputable estimates that go as high as 40 percent. And there's good reason to believe that (inaudible) it is a number for which there are a number of different estimates you could make. And our 25 percent was the conservative number.

So in short, we stand by the calculations that we released recently about the oil budget. Some of those numbers we can measure directly. The others are the best estimates that are out there. And this really underscores the importance of adhering to the commitment that we made when we released the oil budget numbers, which was to continue to do additional monitoring and to refine the estimates if new information should come to the fore, which is why the new monitoring effort that Admiral Allen directed be set in motion last Friday is, in fact, going forward.

Thad Allen: Thank you very much.


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