Thad Allen, National Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill explains to the national medial the details and tests necessary to cement the wellhead and completely stem the flow of oil into the gulf.
The transcript of his August 2 press conference follows.
Thad Allen: Obviously, the topic of the day are the tests leading to the static tests we’re going to be doing on the well. I’d like to bring you up to speed on this. I’m going to go into a little bit more detail than I have in the past, because I know there’s a lot of interest on exactly the sequence of events and what’s going to transpire, and I’d be glad to take any questions when I’m done.
What we’re actually involved here is a series of tests of which included is the ability to put mud into the well with the potential to reduce the pressure to zero, which will significantly reduce the risk of any discharge, and also, assist us in the ultimate bottom kill, which is the end result, but there are four basic steps to this, and I wanted to go through each one of them individually so you would know.
Over the last 24 to 36 hours, preparations have been made to do this. A lot of this involves what’s going on with the Q4000. As you know, the Q4000 was being used to produce hydrocarbons out of the stack and at this point will be reversed and used to actually pump materials back down.
So to do that, we had to remove all the gas out of the Q4000 riser pipe. We had to pressure-test the Horizon blowout preventer, critical in this process. We had to rig down the Q4000 production line to bring the hydrocarbons up and actually rig up for pumping operations that would allow us to put both oil and pumping mud back down.
Part of that involved making sure the yellow pod controls, which control the valves on the subsea portion of this work, that all the valves and the flanges have been tested to proper pressure ranges and that the pressure gauges that we’re going to be looking at, they’re going to be very, very important as we move forward, are all tested, calibrated and operating properly, and to make sure that we have backup and duality of measuring pressure.
To that extent, there are going to be three different ways we’re going to measure pressure, different gauges on the blowout preventer and the riser, and the capping stack itself. One will be acoustics, where we will take pressure measurements, and they’ll be transferred via wireless modem to an ROV and then transmitted to the surface. We will have analog pressure gauges, which we will look at, utilizing the cameras on the ROVs and then LED gauges, which we’ll look at, too, so basically three different ways to measure pressure and pass that information back up to Houston.
All those preparations have been taking place over the last 24 hours, and we’re to the point now where we are scheduled in some time in the next few hours to begin the injection test itself.
I was advised just before I came in that there is a small leak on a valve on the Q4000 they are repairing right now. That will probably take a couple of hours to repair, so we’re looking approximately now of starting the injection test sometime later on this afternoon.
The injection test is designed to do three things – number one, establish communication or a path for fluids to flow from the Q4000 down into the well itself; second, to establish pumping rates, and they will do that by taking basic oil and pumping it down at the rates that they would look to put the mud down and make sure all the lines and all the pathways can hold that pumping rate; and, finally, they will do pressure checks.
The science team, working with the BP engineers, have decided that as we go through this procedure, that the pressure in the capping stack itself should not exceed 8,000 pounds per square inch. There’s a safety margin built into that.
So they will control, actually, the pressure on the wellhead – or the pump head on the Q4000 to make sure that the pressure and the capping stack does not exceed 8,000 PSI.
Got the background noise there? Good, thanks.
So after the preparations and the injection tests are complete, the injection test findings will be evaluated. That will probably take several hours. And then they will initiate at that point what has been called the static kill.
The reason I’m differentiating all this out, the static kill is not a monolithic thing that will happen today. It is a potential of one part of the diagnostic tests that are being done. It is not an end in of itself.
And what they will do is they will start pumping mud at a very low rate. This is mud that weighs about 13.2 pounds per gallon, and they will pump it in at, first of all, one barrel per minute, and then raising to two barrels per minute, and then they will slowly pump that into the blowout preventer through the choke line.
Now, the results of this are going to depend on where the oil’s at, and there are three potential places where there can be oil. We have the drill pipe itself, and we’re not sure of the condition or how far that runs down. We have the casing, in which the drill pipe sits, and we have the annulus, which is the area outside the casing between that and the wellbore.
Depending on how much of that space they have to fill up will dictate how long it will take to do the static kill portion of the diagnostic test. If it is only the casing itself, it could be a relative short period of time. If they have to fill the drill pipe, the casing, and the annulus, it could take much longer, and the range to complete the entire operation could be anywhere from about 33 to 61 hours.
We should know earlier on, though, what the results are, and, of course, we’ll be passing those to you as we find them out.
You may ask, why would we be filling the annulus with a top kill? Because I keep saying we need to go in the bottom to fill the annulus in my prior briefings. There is a possibility – and we don’t know this – that there could be a seal further down in the well that could have been compromised and allow the oil to come up through the annulus and be part of what’s been sent to the surface through the blowout preventer. So they need to be prepared to not only put mud down the drill pipe and the casing, but they have to fill the annulus from the top, as well.
And, again, this will be dictated what they find. What there should be is a slow pressure decline, and that would tell them that they’re slowing overcoming the pressure of the hydrocarbons with the weight of the mud moving forward. That decline will be less with the amount of volume if it’s in the entire annulus, so about five or six hours into this, the pressure readings are going to be very, very significant on whether they know they’re filling the pipe, the casing, or the annulus moving forward.
At that point, once they have ascertained exactly what it is they’re doing, they will finish putting the mud in. The fourth step, if it is decided, would be whether or not to put cement in. That would be done based on the results of the test and whether or not the mud is required to fill both – fill the drill pipe, the casing and the annulus.
We have finished laying the casing run from Development Driller 3 for the relief well, and we are holding what we’ve got right now pending the results of this, because the diagnostics that we will learn regarding the pressure thresholds, the performance of the well with the mud going in will tell us a lot more about the casing and the annulus as it relates to what we need to do from the bottom up.
And as I said, once we decide to move forward, we will have about 100 more feet to drill on the relief well from Development Driller 3 offset by about four-and-a-half feet from the Macondo well right now, and that’ll be at an inclination of 2.9 degrees before they intercept the annulus. They would then at that point proceed to pump mud in to fill the annulus and then drill into the casing, where they need to do that.
So if you can see, we’re going from the top first to get the diagnostics, do as much as we can with the mud from the top, learn as much as we can to be able to be more successful, and completing the kill from the bottom when we do that, and I’d be glad to take any questions you may have.
Male: (inaudible) Associated Press. You’ve been very consistent all along, and you just said it again regarding the relief well and that being the final step in all of this, but BP’s been very consistent right up until this morning. This morning, Kent Wells in a briefing that we were on suggested for the first time that the static kill may kill the well and, at that point, they’ll decide whether they do the cementing from the Q4000 or the relief well.
So he was essentially suggesting that they might not go forward with the relief well, bottom kill. And I’m wondering why there’s that inconsistency. You’ve been very consistent. Are they going to do the relief well or not?
Thad Allen: Well, I think one of the things they don’t know is whether or not the annulus has been compromised and (inaudible) access from the top. If those seals are in place and the annulus was not compromised, they cannot fill the annulus from the top, and you cannot kill the well without filling the annulus.
You can say that may happen. I don’t think you can predict it will happen.
Thad Allen: Well, I think we’re going to need the final step of drilling into the annulus and making sure that the mud effort from the top got everything done. I don’t think we will know that until we come in from the bottom. I think they would agree with that. I think we may be looking at some semantical differences here.
I think everybody would like to have this thing ended as soon as possible, but my duty as the national incident commander is to give you my best, you know, view. It may be a little conservative, but I think we need to understand, we don’t know the condition of the well until we start to put mud in it.
Female: (inaudible) 31 to 66 hours before you knew what the status of the static kill was. Is that from the point of the beginning of the injectivity (inaudible)
Thad Allen: No, it’s after the injectivity test is done. We’re going to – and, again, this could be shortened. They think it’s going to take about four hours to evaluate the data from the injectivity test, in other words, to understand exactly what the pressure means, what the pump rates are, and what the maximum pressure that was measured in the capping stack.
It could be less, but they’re assuming four hours. And then they’re looking at about another five hours to do the initial pumping, start pumping mud in at two barrels per minute. That will start getting them to a threshold where they should be able to start – they have these curves on whether or not it’s the annulus and the casing or just the annulus or just the casing and how the pressure should perform and decline.
So as they pump those two barrels per minute in over the next first five or six hours, they’re going to try and discriminate exactly which pressure line they’re on that would tell them they’ve got an issue with the annulus or the casing or both. That entire period will take about five hours, so you’re four plus five.
Then, depending on – once they understand that, whether you have to fill the entire casing and the annulus (up and it splits), it could either be on the low side, take you about 33 hours to complete it, or as much as 61, if they have to pump enough mud and it would fill both the casing and the annulus. It kind of diverges at that point.
Is that responsive?
(Eric Siegel): Yes, thank you, sir. (Eric Siegel) with CNN. Back to dispersants, at any point on any occasion did BP use more dispersants than it said it would use or did they ever use more dispersants than you said it could use?
Thad Allen: I’m not going to get into a line-item-by-line-item analysis. I mean, we can do that. The fact of matter of is, any dispersants that were applied were done under an order by the federal on-scene coordinator that was certified after it was recommended by the incident commander at Houma, probably subsequent to a surveillance flight that identified the oil, and in some cases identified the fact that if we did not attack it with dispersants, it was probably not skimmable or burnable or weather conditions would not allow us to treat it some other way, and not using dispersants would result in that oil ending up in a marsh or a beach, and these are decisions that are made tactically on a day-to-day basis based on the surveillance information and the – and the decision – collective decision of the people working in the incident command post.
So, I mean, you could pull out each incident and take a look at it. In general, that is the process and that’s what was followed.
Maya Rodriguez: Hi. Maya Rodriguez with WWL-TV here in New Orleans. You know, over the weekend, some local parish officials raised a great deal of concern about the possible removal of oil response assets, mainly because of all the unknowns surrounding the oil plumes that might be underwater right now. Where do efforts stand right now to track those underwater oil plumes? And how does that play in with whether assets will be removed from some of these parishes?
Thad Allen: That’s a great question. Let me attack that in two points. We’ve had a science team put together for the last week that’s been looking at two things. One is the flow rate, and the second one is the oil budget. We would expect in the next 36 to 72 hours to come to a final report, had that briefed up, and be able to make public what we think the flow rate is and then the oil budget. That gives you – if the rate is X, then over so many days, you probably had that much oil that’s out there.
We’ve skimmed this much, burned this much. What’s left that’s recoverable or what’s left to deal with? We’ll be able to have a discussion about that moving forward.
There is going to be an amount of oil that’ll probably be unaccounted for. And the question is, you know, where is that at? As you know, NOAA has been doing an extensive testing of the water column, testing for hydrocarbons. The further they get away from the wellhead, the fewer hydrocarbons they find. That’s actually played into the fact that the fishery areas have been reopened to the east and we continue to open fishery areas around.
That doesn’t mean – there may be oil out there and we don’t know where it’s at. What it means is, we need to continue to look. We’re in a situation we’ve never been before in this country with the size of the spill, and we’re learning things everyday about the fate of the oil, and we need to continue to be vigilant.
And I share the local parish president’s concern that we could have oil impacting the beaches and shorelines and the marshes for some time to come, maybe into next spring, because some of this oil may be brought up because of storm conditions, it may be relocated, and we saw that happen after Bonnie came through. Some of the oil actually was moved and it went to other places.
So there will be response capability around. We intend to meet our commitments and we intend to make sure that BP meets its commitments.
I will say this. Every time we move equipment around, it doesn’t mean that we are vacating the premises. And I think everybody needs to understand what our commitment is. There were three incidents in the last week or so that probably need some clarification.
I was in Venice last Thursday, and I got a brief that we received a load of defective boom. I’m not going to tell you the company or anything else, but it was boom – when you put it in the water, it didn’t float. It flipped over. It was unusable, OK?
In the process of transporting that out of Plaquemines parish, we were confronted and approached with the fact that we (inaudible) equipment and somehow abandoning the parish. Absolutely not true.
We had another incident where we were trying to retrieve absorbent boom that had become oiled. Absorbent boom has to be replaced. You put other boom back out because it absorbs the oil. You remove it, and you put more out there to kind of soak up the oil.
And removing the absorbent boom, which we have to do and replace with new boom, was interpreted as we were moving boom from the parish. Again, not true.
We were asked to provide resources from St. Bernard parish to assist in the blowout in Barataria Bay. When we attempted to assist Jefferson parish and move those resources from St. Bernard parish, we were then confronted with the fact we were moving equipment from the parish.
Angel Gonzalez: Hi, this is Angel Gonzalez with Dow Jones. So basically we will know later tonight if the injection of mud is going to take place?
Thad Allen: We will have to start the injection of the mud. It will be at about two barrels per minute…
Angel Gonzalez: Right.
Thad Allen: … to get enough volume down for us to get pressure readings back that will tell us if we’re either filling the casing or the casing and the annulus.
Angel Gonzalez: Right, but the injectivity test…
Thad Allen: In the – once we start, we should get a good feel within 24 hours about where we’re at, yes.
Angel Gonzalez: Oh, OK. And by Wednesday, we should know whether these efforts worked or not.
Thad Allen: Well, again, we’re going to put a number of barrels in there to make sure we know what we’re dealing with. I don’t think I want to presuppose the outcome, because we could – one of the things we’re looking for is if we start pumping mud in and all of a sudden the pressure doesn’t go down and we hit just the flat line and the pressure stays there, that means it’s going somewhere. That would be of concern.
So what you want is the pressure to slowly decrease until it becomes zero in the well. That means the amount of mud is equal to the pressure being pushed up. But if it stops somewhere short of that, that means we may have a problem with the integrity of the casing of the wellbore, so we really won’t know until we do the final diagnostics. And, again, that will tell us what we need to do for the bottom kill.
Angel Gonzalez: Thank you.
Megan Moloney: Operator, at this time, we could go to questions from the phone, please.
Kirsten Hays: Yes, hello, Admiral. I’m wondering, what is the status of everything needed for containment, if there is a problem with the relief well or the static kill? Are all the vessels out there? Are the drill ships out there? Is it ready to set up?
Thad Allen: That’s a great question. The Helix Producer I is on scene and can be hooked up to the vertical riser package that was installed just before we did the capping stack. The other production platform we were using is the Q4000. We would have to secure the mud pumping operations and reverse what I just explained earlier. We’d have to stop the down-pumping operations and then make the Q4000 capable of production, and they would flare off gasoline and natural gas.
The Discoverer Enterprise, which formally was producing off of the first top hat device, is standing with another capping device should it be needed, and they would move back in. I would tell you, this would not happen overnight. There will probably be some discharge in the environment were that to occur. But the capping stack is in place. We’ve detected no anomalies. And the science team, together with BP engineers, have determined that it is safe to move ahead with the injection test and the static kill at this point.
We’ve also directed that, in the event that something happens and there is some kind of a discharge, we have 22 very large ocean skimming equipment vessels, though, standing by as we are doing this.
Kirsten Hays: OK, thank you.
Thad Allen: Is that responsive?
Kirsten Hays: Yes, thank you.
Vivian Kuo: Hi there, Admiral. You mentioned yesterday you were putting together a detailed response to some of Congressman Markey’s allegations on dispersants. Where does that response stand? And you also mentioned talking about using dispersants on a case-by-case basis. Do you ever think that dispersants saved the day in many cases?
Thad Allen: Well, the letter was very detailed, and we’re putting that information together right now. Let me just make a couple of general comments about dispersants.
Number one, they are authorized as an alternative technology in statute. They were developed as a result of the Oil Pollution Act, and they’re in the national contingency plan, along with in situ burning. We do not have an easy way to do either one of those during the Exxon Valdez, and we spent the entire decade of the 1990s at the area committee level, along the coastline of the United States, conducting negotiations and setting up protocols by which local commanders could use either the in situ burning or dispersants if pre-existing criteria were met without having to convene a meeting and get approval to do that.
I know that, because I was the captain of the port of Long Island Sound from 1993 to 1996, and I had to negotiate those protocols for both in situ burnings and dispersants. Everybody had to do that. Once those protocols are met, by law, by regulation under the national contingency plan, commanders can use those, which we did at the start of this response.
Having said that, we got into the third week of May. It was apparent to everybody that we were using dispersants on a scale that was never envisioned by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and we were in agreement with EPA that we should try to do something to monitor that.
Admiral Mary Landry, who was heading the Unified Area Command at that point, met with Lisa Jackson, and that’s when they set up the goal to try and reduce the number of dispersants by 75 percent as we move forward.
They also put a line in – and you can argue about semantics – that the exceptions to this would be rare. So I think we’re down to a discussion of what is rare and when do you do that.
I would say moving forward, as we were trying to deal with oil on the water, tactically when we saw it, it became apparent that we would need to have a much closer coordination and conversation with EPA on how this was done. To that end, I requested a meeting on the 22nd of June with Lisa Jackson and her staff. And as a result of that meeting, we actually put EPA personnel into the decision-making process at the incident command post and here at the Unified Area Command so there be a total discussion.
But in the end, the responsibility lies with the federal on-scene coordinator to make a decision to use those. They’re not constrained by law as long as they meet the protocols that are in the existing national contingency plan, and the goals that we had laid out with EPA were largely met, as we reached 72 percent.
Now, on a daily basis, you could find exceptions, and there are times when maybe not everybody agreed on what we should do. But the fact of the matter is, folks are managing these conditions on scene tactically and have to make decisions without complete information, sometimes under conditions of uncertainty, because we have never used dispersants at this level before.
That was done. And to the extent that there was an issue about it, I’m the national incident commander and I’m accountable.
Tom Fowler: Hi, Admiral. Two things. I guess – my understanding was when the static kill starts, there’s a chance we may see a little bit of oil come out sort of (as it’s bled through the system). I’m wondering if you can confirm that or not. It wouldn’t be a lot, but (just for visual).
And then also, the size of the cement plug when the final kill is actually made, I guess initially a lot of people were thinking this was going to be sort of a giant cement Popsicle all the way through the entire well, but it looks like from the diagrams that BP has been showing, we’re looking at maybe just a couple hundred feet. I was wondering if you have any more clarity on how big the cement plug actually has to be to kill the well.
Thad Allen: Well, let me discriminate just a little bit. And you talked earlier about a potential oil leak. When – first of all, we have several small leaks that are around the capping stack and blowout preventer right now. They’re not consequential, and we are monitoring them. Nothing would indicate that we have a problem there.
When the mud starts being pumped in through the choke line at the two-gallon-per-minute rate, it will start to press down the well column and offset the weight of the oil that’s there and ultimately drive down towards the reservoir. There will be a small amount of oil that will remain above where the choke line comes in up to the top of the capping stack. That will be compressed slightly as the mud is pumped into the well, but should not result in any significant pressure increase. I personally discussed this with our science team and the BP engineers myself this morning.
After that, it’s going to be, how goes it? We’re going to pump some mud in. We’re going to take pressure readings. And we’re going to try to determine, based on the volume of mud that’s being pumped in and the pressure readings we’re seeing at the various places where we’ve put them on the capping stack and down at the Horizon blowout preventer whether we’re dealing with just filling the casing or filling the casing and the annulus.
So I don’t think we know until we actually start pumping it in. And a decision on whether or not to put cement in after the mud will be completely dependent on the assessment of the integrity of the casing and the wellbore, what the diagnostic testing has showed us in terms of the mud that’s gone in. And if we don’t have to cement, we can always do that as a result of the bottom kill operation, will have to be done anyway, which leads me back to the question earlier, I don’t think we can see this particular day which is not just a static kill. It’s a series of diagnostic tests. I don’t think we can see this as the end all, be all until we actually get the relief wells done.
Tom Fowler: I guess – I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear about the cement, though. In terms of how much cement one generally needs for sealing off the well, I mean, are we just talking about a couple hundred feet or the – I know obviously you won’t truly know until you actually have the static kill, kill done.
Thad Allen: Well, I think it’s going to depend on what we find as a result of pumping the mud down and whether or not we’re talking about the casing or the casing and the annulus. And I think at that point, there’s going to have to be a pause in the action, and we’re going to have to have the science team and the BP engineers sit down and talk about it and decide what the wisdom is of trying to pump cement down the well, given the conditions that we find.
There are some conditions that would probably not have it be a problem. There are some conditions that would lead you to believe that you want to do that through the bottom kill. I don’t think we can presume that until we know the results of the mud that’s being pumped down.
I hate to be, you know, not exact on this, but I think we really need to understand what the pressure readings are going to tell us as we pump mud into the well.
(Noah Brenner): Thanks for taking my question, Admiral. I was wondering, do all the relief well activities have to be stopped during the static kill? Can you still do ranging? Or I guess are there any – is there any progress that can be made on the relief well during the static kill or is it going to be set back about 61 hours, up to 61 hours?
Thad Allen: Well, on the Development Driller 3, they have pulled back the drill string and they’re circulating fluids in order to make sure they keep it clean and ready to go. It’s got a cement shoe that’s been placed in the bottom of it. When they are ready to prepare, they will drill through the cement shoe and go ahead and proceed with that 100 feet.
But as I’ve said before, that’ll be done in probably 20- to 25-foot increments, being interspersed by the ranging runs. So I think that once we know what the result of the diagnostics from the test we’re doing right now is, I think at the earliest we’d be looking at five to seven days after that before we would be ready to go, because they’d have to put the drill string back down, drill through the shoe, and then start the runs down the last 100 feet.
(Noah Brenner): So no drilling or ranging would take place during the static kill operation?
Thad Allen: No, we’re going to wait and focus everything – but, frankly, based on what we find out from the injectivity and the static kill will largely define exactly what’s goig to have to be done after we intercept the annulus, and then those preparations would have to be made over in conjunction with Development Driller 3, including the type of mud, how much mud, the cement, the pump boats, and the drill boats would have to be set up.
But right now, that formula has not been solved because they’re waiting on information to be developed in terms of the diagnostics. We’ll see in the next 36 to 72 hours.
Megan Moloney: Thank you, everyone, for joining us today here in New Orleans. That concludes today’s National Incident Commander briefing.