BP/Gulf Oil Gusher

Press Briefing by National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen, September 10, 2010

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–September 10, 2010 – 12:00 p.m. EDT

Admiral Thad Allen:   I’d like to provide an update regarding the last briefing I gave on the relief well.  But before that, let me just give you a quick update.  We continue to remove boom where it’s no longer needed.  In Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi have no boom at this point.

We continue to work with the parish presidents in the state of Louisiana on our transition plans, and we’re also looking at how to best transition the extensive field infrastructure we have put in place in Mobile and Houma, Louisiana, as we look to finish up the recovery and move to long-term restoration, making sure that we have enough response capability to deal with any residual oil that may be found out there and deal with the oil that’s continuing to be recovered in the marsh areas of Louisiana.

We’re also looking forward next week to giving you a full briefing on subsurface oil testing.  Admiral Zukunft down in New Orleans has done extensive outreach with NOAA, and they have done outreach with academia.  We’ll be in a position sometime next week to give you a more extensive brief on how we think we’re going to proceed with that, including the data acquisition, the analysis, and how that’s going to support our efforts to determine whether or not there is any residual oil out there, where it might be, and how we will deal with it from the response phase, but also to set the conditions of success as we move into natural resource damage assessment.

With that, let me give you an update.  When I spoke last, I talked about discussions that were going on with BP regarding our desire to make sure we knew the condition of the annulus before going ahead with the relief well.  And there was extensive discussion between the BP engineers and our science team regarding the ability to perforate the casing above the cement that was put in during the static kill and put cement in at the top to obviate the need to be concerned about any seal problems at the top of the annulus.

Again, we still need to go in from the bottom, because we’re not absolutely sure of the condition of the, what it is between the annulus and the reservoir, if there’s communication there.

In the last 48 to 72 hours, in extensive work and consultation between the science team and the BP engineers, we’ve come up with an alternate method to ensure us that we won’t have a problem with the seal between the annulus and the blowout preventer.

And in order to speed the process up, but also ensure that we had the right pressure controls on the well, I’ve signed a directive out to BP earlier this morning, directing them to take a series of measurements on the well head that would allow us to ascertain whether or not the seal in the ring – in the casing hanger were in place and had not lifted and, if that was the case, then to be able to put what we call a sleeve over the top of it that would basically walk that down to the point where it could withstand over one million pounds of pressure and would obviate the need to be able to cement the annulus at the top.

And subject to BP providing me the plans and the results of those tests, that would allow us to go ahead and proceed more quickly without having to cement the top of the annulus.  And based on a revised schedule from BP, we might be able to accelerate going ahead and finishing out the relief well.

This remains a work in progress this morning.  I’m giving you what we have as we’ve got it.  We’ll continue to update everybody as we move forward, but just to summarize, we have found a way to be able to measure or assess the condition of the seal and the casing hanger at the top of the wellhead.

And as a result of those tests, it appears that we can put a device over the top of the wellhead that basically locks it down.  That means that entire casing hanger cannot be lifted up and, therefore, allow any free communication between the annulus and blowout preventer.  That, in effect, would substitute for our need to be able to cement at the top of the cement plug that’s already there and the annulus.  It will allow us to proceed with the relief well more quickly.

I do not have an exact timeline, because I’ve directed BP to provide that to me.  That is a work that’s in progress right now, so I will not be able to give you exact dates for how much this will be accelerated over my previous briefing, but subject to the installation of this sleeve over the top of the well, it would allow us to go ahead and then proceed with the relief well.

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

Operator:   Your first question comes from Kristen Hays with Reuters.

Question:   Yes, hi, Admiral.  Good morning.  I just want to be clear on this – what seems to be a change in procedure here.  This would be some sort of a cap that you would put at the top of the well and, therefore, you would not have to inject – go down into the well, perforate the casing, inject more cement, before you resume drilling on the relief well?  So you’ll be able to resume drilling on the relief well sooner than you had thought a couple days ago, right?

Admiral Allen:   That is correct.  In essence, we’re going to put a ring or what they call a sleeve around the top that’ll lock that casing hanger in place, will not allow it to move.  There is always concern that when we pressurize the annulus, that  casing hanger would lift, allow free communication between the annulus up into the blowout preventer.

Cement in the annulus will be one way to preclude that from happening.  But after some consultation and looking at various alternatives, the BP engineers and our science team agreed that if we could ascertain that the casing hanger had not been dislodged, in other words, where we need it to be, then we could actually put a sleeve around it and basically lock it down.

And the order that I issued to BP, I ordered them to take what are called lead impressions.  You go down, you take an impression of the top of the casing hanger.  And then that allows you to take measurements on where its location is.  Based on that measurement that they took, it appears that the casing hanger has not been dislodged to the point where we’d have a problem with the seal, so we just need to lock it in place, and that would substitute for the pressure control that cementing the annulus would have provided.

Question:   Okay.  And I understand that you don’t have a specific timeline – any specific timelines, but, of course, that’s what we all keep asking you about every time.  The last time we spoke, you were looking at resuming drilling by September 18th or by September 28th.  Do you think this might mean that this whole process could be finished before the end of September?

Admiral Allen:   That potential exists, and we won’t know exactly until BP provides me the schedule that I directed them to do and the order – actually, we will be posting that very shortly and making it public to you.

Question:   Okay.

Admiral Allen:   But they need to take – they need to take the results of the test that I ordered, come back to us and say, “Here’s how long it’ll take us to lock that casing hanger down.”  And once that’s done, basically at that point we can proceed with the relief well.  So it does take a significant amount of time out of the schedule.  I’m not prepared to give the exact time right now because we don’t have the schedule from BP.

Question:   Okay.  Thank you, sir.

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

Question:   Well, thank you.  Just to kind of follow up on Kristen’s question, if you do this, it sounds like you could wind up with a million pounds of pressure between left in the annulus, which is being held in there by the clamp you’re going to put on there and the blowout preventer.  Is there a procedure for basically bleeding that off somehow so that you no longer have this pressure trapped in the hole?  Or is that a relevant consideration?

Admiral Allen:   It is not.  And maybe I didn’t explain this correctly.  What I said was, the seal that will be put on, the sleeve or the ring that will put on over the casing hanger will be what’s able to stand that much pressure.  It’s not going to generate any pressure.

In other words, we basically have a pressure guard on the top of that, that’ll be very, very difficult for anything to dislodge.  There is not a million pounds of pressure anywhere.  The sleeve that’s being put on can’t withstand it.

Question:   Okay.  But it seems like you’re assuming that there’s going to be some pressure – that there could be some pressure generated at the top of the well by injecting the cement at the bottom.  That’s all I’m trying to get clear on.

Admiral Allen:   No, we’ve always been concerned that, when we intercept the well, that the drilling mud would go up through the annulus and generate pressure at the top, potentially dislodging the seal going into the blowout preventer.  The first step to mitigate that was to replace the blowout preventer.

The second step – what we were looking at is to prevent that seal from rising, even if it was going to go into the new blowout preventer, it might be a good idea to cement the annulus above the current cement that’s there.  We now have an alternate means to do that mechanically at the well head itself.

Operator:   Your next question comes from Anne Thompson with NBC News.

Question:   Good morning, Admiral Allen.  Just to the seal, have you found anything on the seal that would lead you to believe that it could lift up when you intercept the – when you finally intercept the annulus with the relief well?  Or is this just something that you’re doing to be extra cautious?

Admiral Allen:   Well, there’s been a discussion all the way along of whether or not the seal between the annulus and the blowout preventer had anything to do with the event and therefore there would be problems with the stability.  But we came up with the idea to do this test, where you put some lead blocks down, actually press down and take an imprint of the top of that device, and then from that you can get a measurement on whether or not it was dislodged.

And the lead imprints that we’re taking indicate that it has not been dislodged, so the question is, if you could lock it in place to be able to withstand reasonable pressure that would dislodge it, then you don’t have to take the first step that we had talked about earlier of perforating the casing and cementing the annulus at the top.  You know, you can go ahead and proceed directly to the relief well.

Operator:   Your next question comes from Mark Peters with Dow Jones News.

Question:   Hi, good morning.  I’m just having difficulty understanding what you’re going to be locking down.  Is this an existing seal that can be locked down at basically where – right below the blowout preventer?  And I’m just trying to understand exactly where that’s located and the process of that.

Admiral Allen:   Yes, let me explain it again.  At the very top of the well head, there is something called a casing hanger.  That hanger holds the casings that are dropped down into the well bore, and these get sequentially smaller in diameter.

If you can imagine a telescopic, smaller sections of casing that are hung from the top and they get smaller as you go down the well, so the entire weight of all the casings in the well rest on that casing hanger, which is significant.  So that is the structural place on which all the casing in the well are hung from.

As part of that mechanism, there is a fail-safe device inside where if there’s enough pressure in the annulus, it will actually lift up so the pressure is relieved, so you don’t harm the well bore or the well itself.  So we’re talking about that casing hanger, that mechanism at the top of the well from which all the casings are hung that also has in it a seal which, if it’s subjected to enough pressure, will rise up and open and allow the pressure to be relieved.

There’s been concern all the way along about what would happen when we pressurized the annulus in relation to the casing hanger.  And this has been discussed for actually a number of weeks.  We don’t know the condition completely of the annulus, and we don’t know the condition of those seals.

When the proposal was made to cement the annulus above the static kill cement plug, we’d had significant discussions between the BP engineers and our science team about how long that was going to take before we could go and finish the relief well at the bottom and were there alternate ways to ensure that the seal above the annulus and the casing hanger would not move.

That led to a discussion of whether or not you could assess the condition of the casing hanger.  And if we knew it was in place, had not lifted, and the seals were intact, then to be able to put a device that just locked it in place so it could not be moved.

That obviates the need to worry about the casing hanger lifting up and having that seal open that would allow communication between the annulus and the blowout preventer.  So after a series of conversations, it was determined we could get the same effect as far as limiting any risk of pressure upward of the annulus by locking the casing hanger in place as long as there was nothing wrong with it.  And we’ve determined that we can do that, so that procedure is going to replace the requirement to do the more extensive procedure, which will be to perforate the casing and put some cement at the top as a way to mitigate risks to the top of the annulus.

Was that responsive?

Operator:   Your next question comes from Henry Fountain with New York Times.

Question:   Morning, Admiral Allen.  I’m just wondering if this putting a new sleeve on could have been done with the original blowout preventer in place.  In other words, was there still a need to replace the blowout preventer if this sleeve idea had been posed earlier?

Admiral Allen:   I will go back and check and see if there was any option to do that earlier on.  That did not come up in our conversations, but we will post an answer on that to the Joint Information Center.

Operator:   Your next question comes from Paula Dittrick with Oil and Gas Journal.

Question:   Morning, Admiral.  Thanks for taking my call.  I was wondering if you could give us an update on the fishing operations.  And also I was unclear if you’re trying to take the pipe out or you’re just trying to figure out what is there.  Thank you.

Admiral Allen:   We were conducting fishing operations to assess the condition of the well at that point in advance of what would have been an attempt to perforate the casing and cement the annulus from the top.  That has limited value at this point and can be done at a later date after the well is killed from the bottom as part of the plugging and abandonment that BP were required to do under the direction of BOEM.

So at this point, what we’re really looking to do is finish the relief well, kill the well completely.  Any forensics related to the casing pipe and any fish that are down there can be done in conjunction with the plugging and abandonment.  But the decision was made by the senior leadership and the science team in consultation with BP if we could move ahead more quickly, rather than having to cement the annulus, if that was a better option at this point to finish the relief well, completely kill the well, and then moving to plugging and abandonment.

Operator:   Your next question comes from Russell McCulley with Offshore Engineer.

Question:   Hi, Admiral.  I think you may have addressed this in an earlier answer, but I was wondering why this method is considered preferable to the top kill that you had planned before.  And the second part is, if you could describe that sleeve a little – in a little more detail.  Is this something that needs to be manufactured specifically for this well?  Is it a standard device?  Just a little more description there would help.  Thanks.

Admiral Allen:   I believe it is a standard device.  I don’t believe it has to be manufactured, but we will verify that and post it on there.  And we’ll have a more detailed description of exactly what it is.

This is a late-breaking piece of information that’s happening this morning.  I didn’t want to keep it back from you, but as we are want to do when we go out and we tell you something is breaking and we’re making decisions and we’re moving forward, there’s not a lot of time to prepare for all the anticipated questions, and we’ll make sure we backfill on all of that.

Basically, they will have to do a number of procedures in this well regarding plugging and abandonment.  And I’m starting to get away from my role as the recovery chief here and into issues related to the regulatory responsibilities of the Department of Energy as it relates to BP and how they’re ultimately going to plug and abandon the well.

And we’ve kind of got a mix of activities here related to trying to secure the well and the source and what ultimately is going to have to be done to meet the regulatory requirements to plug and abandon the well under their regulations.  And so there’s kind of a mix and match of options that you have to do this.

And based on discussions with Secretary Chu, Secretary Salazar, and other senior leaders over the last couple of days, the issues related to the annulus, the casing, the pipe, and all that sort of stuff is going to have to be dealt with ultimately through plugging and abandonment, but we weren’t precluded from coming up with a quicker way to mitigate the risk of pressure to the top of the annulus or proceeding with the relief well.  And it was a consideration of all the senior leaders involved in consultation with BP that that was the best way to move forward.

Operator:   Your next question comes from Anthony Guegel with Upstream News.

Question:   Yes, hi, Admiral.  I was just curious if the Q4 had departed the scene with the LMRP and BOP.  And I know it’s leaving your area and your purview, but do you know where – what port it’s headed to?

Admiral Allen:   The Q4000 has finished whatever they’re doing on scene and are making preparations to move towards south pass of the Mississippi River.  I would refer any further questions on the status of that to the joint investigation team and DOJ, because at this point, all the movements of the vessel and what happens with the contents of the vessel are under their purview.

And you are correct.  I don’t have control of that anymore.

Operator:   Your next question comes from Thomas Davis with Daily Kos.

Question:   Hey, Admiral.  If they’re not going to be venting the annulus and they’re going to be putting a lockdown sleeve on it, will that put a high stress pressure on the rock and the mud surrounding the annulus?

Admiral Allen:   They don’t believe to the point where it’ll jeopardize the ongoing operation.  And, again, we’re not going to know exactly the condition of the annulus until we do the intercept.  But any pressure downward is not going to have nearly the effect of excess pressure upward that could not be tolerated by those seals, so this is considered the preferred way ahead.

Operator:   Your next question comes from Mark Peters with Dow Jones News.

Question:   Hi, just one follow-up.  Where is the sleeve going to be placed?  Is that going to be placed at the mouth of the well where the blowout preventer is?  And how does that differ from the casing hanger that you’re going to lock down?

Admiral Allen:   The sleeve will lock down the casing hanger at the top of the well head just below the blowout preventer.

Question:   Okay, the sleeve will lock down the casing hanger.  Thank you.

Admiral Allen:   Yes.  Thank you all.


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