Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
10:10 A.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Good morning, everyone. We are joined this morning by -- with Thad Allen, our national incident commander dealing with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He is also here for a meeting with Cabinet agencies that are dealing with this crisis, as well -- that begins in a little less than an hour. So let me turn it over to him to walk through the stages of our response. And we will both take your questions.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Thanks, Robert. Appreciate it.
Good morning. First a quick operational update. In the last 24 hours, the production of the Discover Enterprise over the wellhead produced 11,000 barrels of oil. They continue to increase -- over the first three days of operation we have gone from 6,000 to 11,000 -- trying to increase that production rate, ultimately close the venting valves and move to a greater capacity.
BP anticipates moving another craft in that can actually handle additional production, and the combination of these two -- the vessel is actually called the Q4000 -- combined will have a production capability of about 20,000 barrels a day. And we're looking to increase production, as I said, so we can slowly close those vents and see how the containment cap is working and whether or not any oil is forced down by the pressure through the rubber seals, as we've talked about before.
In the long run, British Petroleum is also looking at bringing larger production vessels in, create a more permanent connection that can be disconnected easily in case we have a hurricane or bad weather later on in the hurricane season, and will continue to optimize the production out of the well to contain it.
As I've said on several occasions, though, the long-term solution to this is going to be drilling the relief wells, which, again, are targeted at early August. There are two relief wells in progress right now: Development Driller Three is down between 7,000 and 8,000 below the sea floor; Development Driller Two is down around 3,000.
Those will continue. The second one is a risk mitigater, as we move towards what will be the final solution, which will be the relief wells. And following the intersection of the well bore with those relief wells, they will put heavy mud down there to suppress the pressure of the oil coming up from the reservoir, put a cement plug in and effectively do what I would call a bottom kill, as opposed to the top kill, which was not successful a couple of weeks ago.
What I’d like to kind of talk to you about is the area of operations out there. And we’re going to try something on you today, and you like it, we’ll continue to refine it. Take this as a work in progress, but -- can we go ahead and put the slide up, please? And there are copies available on the web and we’ll get it to you, but basically we’re going to try and start giving you a three-dimensional look at what the world of work is like out there.
We’re dealing with basically four areas of operations. One is the subsea area, where we’re trying to do containment on the well. The second is trying to deal with the oil that's on the surface above the well, where it comes up in large quantities and could be dealt with effectively through mechanical skimming and in-situ burning.
We all know about the recovery on shore, but the emphasis over the last couple of weeks has shifted to the area between the shoreline and out about 50 miles. Because what’s happened, over the last several weeks, this spill has disaggregated itself. We’re no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill; we’re dealing with an aggregation of hundreds or thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different directions. And we’ve had to adapt and we need to adapt to be able to meet that threat.
When this operation started, we were controlling all skimming and in-situ burning operations out of the Incident Command Post in Houma, Louisiana, which has responsibility for the area where the well is at. In the last week, we have shifted control of skimming assets to the commander and the Incident Command Post in Alabama, who is responsible for Mississippi, Alabama and Florida -- and actually have detached a task force to work for him to push out 50 miles offshore and find these smaller patches and try and deal with them before they get to shore.
This is an adaptation to the changing characteristics of the spill, which is no longer a single spill but a massive collection of smaller spills moving forward. And in regards to that, what is becoming critical, in the near future we’ll be able to get skimming capability offshore and be able to work those small patches.
We’ve made some significant progress in bringing more folks into the fight in terms of vessels of opportunity. These are local fishing vessels and workboats that we certify to help us, and then also certify the individuals and train them thereon. Between Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, right now we have about 1,500 vessels of opportunities where we’ve certified the crews and put them out there.
What we now have is an opportunity to match vessels of opportunity with skimmers. So the next critical component or resource we’re going to be looking for is to increase the amount of skimmers now that we have these vessels that can deploy them.
We have over 100 large vessels that are skimming offshore in and around the surface area above the well. What we want to do is take this down to a slightly lower level -- smaller skimmers and smaller vessels that can work in the harbors and the bays up to 50 miles offshore. And we are moving those assets into place right now, and we’ll be looking nationally at our skimmer inventory and try and get those matched up with the vessels of opportunity as we move forward.
We continue to move Coast Guard units in as well. We have Coast Guard cutters that have skimming capability stationed off of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. We have a Coast Guard cutter out there conducting command and control, helicopters for surveillance. And we have small Coast Guard patrol boats that can actually do scouting, work with the vessels of opportunity, to identify the small patches of oil and deal with it there.
I would tell you this, though: Boom is not a silver bullet against oil. We had a situation over the weekend where we had boom in place back behind Dauphin Island, Alabama, and the sea state actually defeated the boom and we had some oil come ashore there and had to deal with that. We will continue to press forward. I think we have to deal with the reality that no matter how much boom we have out there, that this aggregation of this slick is going to cause oil to come ashore from time to time.
The question for us and the challenge for us is get quicker and agile where smaller units can get to back-bay shallow areas, and work offshore to find smaller patches of oil and deal with them as quickly as we can moving forward.
With that, I'll be glad to take any questions you might have for me.
Q Admiral Allen, what percentage of oil do you think is being captured at this point by the containment device?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Let me give two answers to that, and I think we’re going to have to get more fidelity on this as we get the actual flow rate established. We have two models for a flow out of the wellhead that were done by our Flow Rate Technical Group under Marcia McNutt of the U.S. Geological Survey. One was a range of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day. The other one was a range of 12,000 to 25,000 barrels a day. We are now approaching production that will get up around 15,000 barrels a day.
I think once we know the production flow and we’re able to seal off the vents and then assess the leakage around the seal, we will have a hard, fast number that will tell us where within that range that flow rate lies, and allow us to kind of, I would say, narrow the range from the outside and get greater fidelity. Once we do that, then we can actually back that in for the number of days this spill has been ongoing, and get a better overall estimate of the overall amount of oil that's been spilled.
I call it -- it’s kind of like an oil budget -- how much is coming out, how much have we skimmed, how much have we burned, and then -- so we can account for where all the hydrocarbons went. And that's a work in progress right now. We’ll be able to give you a much finer estimate once we establish the flow rate.
Q And yesterday you talked about the cleanup lasting well into the fall. Can you elaborate on what you --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Sure.
Q -- meant there? Because you can’t expect it all to actually be cleaned up in the fall.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, I think we need to be realistic and honest and transparent with the American people. When the relief well is finished and it’s capped sometime in August, oil will have flowed to the surface in some manner -- because we probably won’t get a hundred percent contained; we want as much as we can get. So there will still be oil on the surface the day the well is capped. And the question is that will have to be dealt with and there will be long-term environmental issues associated with where the oil has come ashore.
We’re going to have to conduct natural resource damage assessments so we can understand the long-term issues associated with that and what BP should be held accountable for as far as correcting those environmental problems. If you look at all of that, we’ll be dealing with oil and the effects of oil well after the time the well is capped.
Q How long, approximately?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, it depends on how much oil is up there and, again, the direction and the currents and so far. But I think there needs to be an expectation that we’re going to be working at least four to six weeks after that well is capped on the oil that's just presently overhead. And that doesn’t account for what oil might come ashore and will elude us so we’ll have to deal with as far as the impact on the marshes.
Q Sounds like you’re capturing more --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I’m sorry --
Q Oh, sorry. Mutiny. You're going in the regular order, okay.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Yes.
Q How would you characterize the containment process so far? Have there been any signs of setbacks or progress? And then on the same thing, can you say how many total miles of coastline have been soiled by oil so far?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Sure. On the containment process, I think it’s going fairly well. This is a condition-based process where they increase production. Once they establish that, they’re always concerned about the formation of hydrates. They’re putting methanol down. They’re also warming the oil as it comes up. All that’s kind of being balanced and I think it’s going fairly well. What we want is to establish a rate so we know exactly what that containment cap can tolerate in terms of flow and what’s going to be lost. And I think it’s very, very important and we’re watching that very, very closely.
As far as the coastline, I think we have about 120 miles total, linear, that’s been impacted. But I would say that’s kind of deceiving because I was talking with the parish presidents and Governor Jindal -- you can have one mile impacted linearly and that could go very deep as far as the acreage of the marshlands behind it. So I think we need to understand where it comes ashore in a marshland, there is a depth component to this and the effect could be far greater than that.
Q You say you’re in contact with the White House every day, that you’re getting everything you need. There are people down in the Gulf, though, that say there aren’t enough skimmers, there aren’t enough people on the beaches. Are they just misinformed? And also, you mentioned optimizing production. I understand you want to get as much out of this, but there’s an incentive for BP to pull that oil out. Should they have to forfeit that oil and that profit to disincentivize them from keeping that going?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: The reason they want to keep the production going is not what they may recoup out of that in terms of production. The reason you want that flow to continue is it alleviates pressure on the wellbore. We did the top kill -- we were able to force mud down the wellbore to the point where we actually suppressed all the oil. But the minute they stopped pumping the mud, the oil came back up. The reason they didn’t go any further is they do not know the condition of the wellbore and the casings down there, and if you exert pressure on that you wouldn’t want to force oil out into the formation or the strata and have it come up through the seafloor. So you want to produce the oil for safety and containment reasons.
Q I understand. Should they have to forfeit that oil? And what about the skimmers?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: That’s above my pay grade.
MR. GIBBS: Let’s be clear. They are the responsible party. They are going to bear the cost for exactly what the Admiral is describing. I think those costs are likely to greatly exceed what the oil that is recouped is sold for on the market. They’re in for -- on response and recovery, there will be penalties that will be involved in this, in the many billions of dollars.
Q Back to the skimmers. People are asking, where are the skimmers?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: We’re doing a national inventory right now because as the response has evolved, as I told you, skimmers are now -- the quantity and demand -- and we’re looking at that right now, doing a national inventory. We may have to make a decision at some point to move skimmers from some part of the United States and basically accept the risk if there’s an event there to be able to bring them here, and we’re having that discussion right now.
Q Have you waited too long to do that, six weeks in?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: No, the threat has evolved. We had a lot of skimmers -- we have a lot of skimmers down there. The question is we now know that we can take advantage of these vessels of opportunity if we get more. We didn’t have the vessels of opportunity several weeks ago; we have them now.
MR. GIBBS: Suzanne.
Q Admiral, NOAA and the University of South Florida have been doing water samples underwater to see if there are underwater oil plumes. What do we know about that in terms of the existence of these big oil plumes and whether or not they’ll come to the surface?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: What we know is they found densities below the surface, and the question is, of those dense masses they found, how much hydrocarbons or oil is there? We had a couple of cruisers that came up with some of that data. What Jane Lubchenco has done, she’s dispatched a fleet of NOAA ships and one of them is out actually right around the platform themselves. I was out there last week, and there was a NOAA vessel taking water samples. And what they're doing is they're taking water samples at different depths to try and establish the amount of hydrocarbons that are in at a particular depth.
And she wants to make a model of the entire Gulf to find out -- because if you go down, there’s a density there, you can go back the next day and it may not be there because it moves around. What she’s trying to create is a model of the entire Gulf. That's kind of like filling in the pixels on a screen with a data sample as you go down through the water column to try and measure what the hydrocarbons are there.
That is -- that's happening right now. That will ultimately have to be put into a computer and come up with the data model for the Gulf. But that's what’s going on.
Q So do you know if there are big, large oil plumes underwater yet? Or that has not been --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: It hasn’t been established by testing. We understand there are densities down there, but as she would say, they haven’t been characterized yet. And that's the reason they're doing the sampling right now and testing it.
Q And then also there are conflicting reports whether or not there are birds that are covered in oil from Texas, as far as Texas. Is that true or not?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I haven’t got that report, but we’ll certainly follow up and get it back to you on that. I personally haven’t been given a report on Texas.
Q Following up on the issue of -- you were saying over the weekend that it could take -- the cleanup could take months, I’ve talked to environmental groups this morning who say that that's a pipe dream. They believe that based on the Exxon Valdez situation, it’s going to be minimum of three, four, five years -- maybe much more than that, that this cleanup operation is going to be going on in a major way. Do you simply disagree with that?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: No, I don't -- maybe it’s how we’re characterizing it. Dealing with the oil spill on the surface is going to go on for a couple of months. After that, it will be taken care of. I agree with you -- long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats and stuff will be years. I separated out two different functions, I guess.
Q Okay -- the Exxon Valdez, it’s been --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I have no argument with that characterization.
Q One other thing. When we were down there this week with the President, we wanted to get shots of work crews on the beaches, and there apparently are rules that they can only work 20 minutes in every hour. And we cruised down the beach past six different tents of people; we could not get a shot of anybody working in the hour or so we were on the beach. And I know people in Grand Isle are irate because they say, look, let us go out and do it. Why do you have all these rules and all this bureaucracy? Would you oppose people -- or is there any kind of mechanism that could be used to let people who are really fired up to clean this up --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Sure.
Q -- because they live there and let them do it?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: We have a program where we -- it’s called qualified community responders, where we bring them in and we teach them to do certain tasks. And it could be driving the vehicles up and down the beach, some basic training on raking and removing debris and those sort of things. And in a number of states, we’ve actually trained these folks and put them out to work there. I don't know about the particulars of your particular situation, but that certainly is available.
Q Are you aware of this -- is there really, as we were told, a 20-minute limit in each hour that they can work --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Not familiar personally, but we will get the information to follow with you.
MR. GIBBS: Obviously, Chip, anybody that deals with and comes into contact with this substance, there is -- as the Admiral said, there’s a training program that is involved in --and we’re taking worker health extremely seriously. We don’t want to find, as you said, months, weeks -- weeks, months, or years later that we didn’t put enough safeguard in on the front end to ensure the health of those that have either been contracted or want to volunteer to help at the beaches.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: We’ve actually got an agreement with the Department of Labor and OSHA on how we’re going to use their protocols and make sure that they’re fully integrated into our response as well.
Q Sir, as I understand it, the containment cap is now putting out more oil than the ship above it is able to carry. You mentioned that BP is going to bring another ship in. Why is the company just doing that now? Why does it seem like we’re always just one step behind here?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, they’re not at a production rate yet that will tax -- they potentially could be there -- as they’re spooling it up, there’s going to be a second vessel brought in.
Q Isn’t that why they didn’t close that fourth valve, because they didn’t want to get to a rate that they couldn’t --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: They are not at a full rate yet, is my understanding.
MR. GIBBS: There’s also -- as I understand it also, there are -- as you said, there is concern about hydrates, there’s concern about pressure. This is a delicate cap and we want to ramp this thing up so that this is a solution that we can work with for weeks and months and don’t do something too rapidly to cause something tragic to happen.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I would tell you, several weeks ago they started converting to a much larger production platform in anticipation that they would replace this one with a higher capacity platform. That’s being done right now. But it’s very large barge ship and some of these are coming as far away as the North Sea to actually bring in the type of production platforms that are floating that could do this at a much larger rate, and that had already been in progress.
Q Bottom line, BP has consistently underestimated the amount of the flow, the flow rate. The U.S. government doesn’t seem to know it. Why is this so difficult?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Frankly, BP is not doing any estimates on flow rate. We’ve established our own group and we do that now and it’s independent of British Petroleum. Those estimates I gave you are estimates that we are doing. I mean, they can do it if they want, but I think we need to have the American people understand that any flow rates that are being developed under any models, those are governmental with third parties involved, not BP. And that’s what’s happening.
Q Is that because you don’t trust BP?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, I think there’s a lot of talk about transparency. I think you guys need to be assured that we are doing this, and we are.
MR. GIBBS: Well, not to mention, as we’ve talked about here, Chip, the amount of oil that leaks will help determine the fine that BP incurs. So while our interests align on capping this well, we would never ask BP to tell us how much oil they think has leaked in order for us to determine the compensation and penalty that is to be derived from it.
Understanding that, again, the Flow Rate Technical Group was stood up -- and as Admiral Allen has said countless number of times, our response was not dictated upon a flow mechanism. But the Flow Rate Technical Group was set up, and because we had a better idea and could use better equipment, NASA equipment, equipment from all over the government, to get as best an estimate as we could for an event that is happening 5,000 feet below the surface of the water.
The analogy that somebody used to me was it is -- we are trying to measure, 5,000 feet below the surface, the amount of material that is coming up if you were to shake a Coke can. Now, that's not a perfect analogy, because most Coke cans are 12 ounces and you know the amount.
So the Flow Rate Technical Group is going back and looking at the information that we have now, the information post the shear cut, and whether or not, as the Admiral said, we can get a closer range as to what has happened.
Q There was a time when you guys were saying a lot that the flow rate wasn’t essential because you were planning for the worst-case scenario. But there’s now a couple of examples --
MR. GIBBS: Well, we’ve said that always and that's --
Q Right. But it is relevant, right, I mean, to how much you’re able to capture --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Exactly. You're making a good point.
Q -- whether top kill is going to be effective?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: At one point in the response we said, okay, it’s time to get a better estimate on that because ultimately we have to know the entire amount of oil that was discharged, into only for the purposes of what follows on in terms of accountability of BP, but able to assess the overall environmental impact of exactly how much oil was out there. So you’re absolutely right.
But in the beginning it wasn’t quite as required in terms of timeliness, but is required, has to be done, and that's the reason we’re doing it.
Q Do you question whether BP has the resources available to bring to this problem that they said they would have when they filed their application for the drilling permit?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Are you talking -- the drilling permit for the original well?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: We have far exceeded the assets being brought to this problem that were indicated in there. You’re talking about their spill response plan?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Yes, we far exceeded that now because of the breadth of this thing. It’s from Louisiana to Port St. Joe, Florida. So the actual resources out there are far beyond what they identified in their plan.
Q Does BP have -- so BP has brought all that they said they would, and more?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Yes. The resources identified in their plan were all brought to bear. That's correct.
Q And is there anything right now that BP is not doing that you would like to see them doing?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: We’d like them to get better at claims. And there are two issues with claims. One is just the timeliness for the individuals. They made some things fairly easy. If you show up and you have a W2 form or any kind of evidence of employment, they’re starting to make partial claim in payments. We need to get that routinized so every month they can look forward to that check coming in. And we have somebody on my staff that's actually meeting with BP today.
There’s a second larger issue that the local leaders identified to the President in the last couple of weeks, and actually Governor Riley in Alabama indicated to me on Saturday, and that's businesses putting claims in for their inability to operate -- seafood manufacturing plants and so forth. Those are -- those claims are processed in a different way and require different documentation that requires information about the business themselves. That appears that it may be a little cumbersome right now
That appears that may be a little cumbersome right now, so we’re actually going to have a meeting with British Petroleum this week and try and simplify their ability to actually handle the claims from businesses. So in that regard, they don't have a history of that company of doing that type of work. They’ve brought in contractors and claims adjusters that are working with them, but we think they need to do that better and quicker.
MR. GIBBS: And I would say this -- we heard this, as the Admiral said, on Friday, both with elected officials and when we met with fishermen, we met with seafood processors who are going through this process. We have -- we’ve set up -- as we talked about on Friday, if you go to disasterassistance.gov, there’s a pretty large icon for people to go to if they’re having difficulty getting their claims adjudicated by BP.
There’s an official that is set up through FEMA that works directly with the national incident commander to ensure that this process is moving along as expeditiously as it needs to. We’ve got problems with, as the Admiral said, major claims being paid and different things along the route.
A seafood processor said, when we catch our shrimp, we freeze the shrimp and they're processed. So while their processor may not be seeing a lessening in the output based on what they had caught previous to this, obviously, because a huge portion of the Gulf is closed to commercial fishing, more shrimp is not coming in, right? So that back end of that process is ending, while if you just simply looked at the business, the sheer output would not necessarily look different. So those are things that we’re asking BP to work through. And it’s something that the President is --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I think the best example -- the President and I were down and we met with local leaders and had some lunch with them -- is a marina operator having maybe 10 percent of the boats tied at the marina that they would normally this time of year, and all of the associated support for that -- food and local businesses being used for meals and all that kind of stuff. That is very, very complex. But we got to get to the bottom of this, make sure these folks can have access to the claims process.
Q So is anybody who is in the economic food chain of the Gulf essentially eligible for reimbursement? If you operate a B&B that doesn’t have people coming, if you supply food to the B&B that doesn’t have people coming, I mean is it all the way down?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: You’re asking us some questions that we never had to answer in the context of an oil spill, or one this large. And those are the types of things we’re working through this week. Tracy Wareing from FEMA -- we’ve actually brought her over here with us on the National Incident Command staff, and she’s coordinating that for us. We’ll have some more -- we’re delving into that this week.
Q You said that when the second platform arrived, that they’ll be able to contain about 20,000 barrels of oil?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Produce about 20,000 barrels, yes.
Q So does that mean that when you look at the two models, that you’re expecting that it’s going to be closer to the 25,000 barrels of oil --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: We just know that's their capacity. We still haven’t established what the flow rate is. That is the big unknown that we’re trying to hone in and get the exact numbers on.
Q But that flow rate could end up being higher than 25,000?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: If that's the case, then we’re going to be dealing with the residual oil until we get the larger production platform that I talked about earlier.
Q That was before the sheer, right? The 25,000 was before the sheer, which could have increased it another 20 percent?
MR. GIBBS: Could have, yes.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Could have, yes, could have, exactly.
MR. GIBBS: The flow rate group is, as I understand it, going through the larger flow rate, as well as trying to hone in on what we think we might have seen in terms of increased capacity after the sheer cut.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: And we’ll make those numbers known as we get them. We’re not trying to lowball it or highball it. It is what it is. And we need to tell you that.
Q So at the most you’ll be able to produce 20,000 barrels of oil per day, once the second platform --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Correct. And then that's anticipated to be replaced by a larger production capacity platform in several weeks.
Q And then how many times -- how often, do you speak to Tony Hayward?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: As often I need to -- either Tony Hayward or Bob Dudley. Sometimes they're in a different places and different locations. But I would say daily, and maybe multiple times during the day if I need to.
Q And have you brought up the claims issues with --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Yes, yes, I did.
Q -- either of them directly. And what has been their response?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: They said they're looking for any type of input, direction that we will give them because they obviously want to do this right. That's not a core competency of BP, so we need to give them some help and some direction and guidance. And that's what we’re doing.
Q And the meeting that you’re having this week, will that be with Tony Hayward?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: No, it will be the person that runs their claims processing for BP. And if I need to meet with Tony Hayward after that, we’ll do that. It will be myself, Tracy Wareing and their claims processor.
Q When you speak to Tony Hayward or Mr. Dudley, do you trust the information that they're giving you?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I get this question all the time. I’m not sure it’s a matter of trust. We’re working together; it has to be cooperative. We’re trying to create unity of effort. If I ask them for information, I get it. If I think I need more information, I go back and ask them. If there’s an ambiguity or something that needs to be clarified, I go back and I do that. I have given them directions sometimes, saying we’re not going to go forward until you give me this. It’s an ongoing, constant dialogue. You can call it partnering, cooperation, trust, whatever, but that's the way it works.
MR. GIBBS: And we’re asking for, and we’ll be asking for at this meeting, some greater transparency on this claims process, trying to shorten the window for what BP is legally required to do in filling those claims, but in having a broader understanding through transparency about what has yet to be fulfilled.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: There are some complicating factors. We are dealing with personally identifiable information, so there are privacy issues and data associated with the folks that are filing claims, and how you actually manage this process -- we just need to make sure we get it right.
MR. GIBBS: Major.
Q Three issues, Admiral. One, dispersants. Can you catch the nation up on what we’ve used so far? Are you still using them? What’s the environmental feel you have for them now as this continues?
Secondly, on the sand berms in Louisiana, where are they? Is one halfway constructed? Do you have two up, or where are we in that process? And are they being contemplated anywhere else along the possible spill target areas as the spill continues?
And lastly, you said on one of the shows yesterday that you would look into this issue whether or not BP withheld or ordered you to withhold video early on in the disaster from public release? Do you have anything further on that?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Yes, I think we issued a statement on that. I don't think there was any indication that they did do that. And my press assistant can make it available to you. If you go -- I forgot the first question now. (Laughter.)
Q Dispersants and the sand berms.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Dispersants, good. Dispersants -- as you know, we recently reached the 1 million gallon threshold, not a threshold of any particular importance other than its sheer magnitude.
Q Never before has that level?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Never before, never before. I’ve had frequent contact with Lisa Jackson on this, and the overall approach is to minimize the amount of dispersants being used on the surface because they're not as effective as the dispersants used in the subsea area. And the reason they're not as effective is they go on top of the oil, and you get less effect because there’s oil -- if the oil is several inches deep, the dispersants kind of react on the top, and you actually need to kind of mix it up and emulsify it for the dispersants to have the greatest effect.
When we apply dispersants with a wand at the point of discharge, there’s a better mixing already, so we’re much more effective at a much lower rate. So our general strategy is to use subsea dispersants wherever possible and minimize the amount on the surface to what’s needed for safety or exigent circumstances.
And I’ll give you one. If you saw, we did some video out on the oil rigs last week when I was out there. In the background one of the offshore supply vessels was actually spraying water all around the Discover Enterprise. That was to put down volatile organic compounds that were coming up out of the oil that was sitting around the ship that was actually producing -- there actually is a threat to personal safety and health there on those vapors. Dispersants put those down. You’d rather use water to do it. There may be times where because of the situation you may want to use dispersants to reduce those vapors. But those are the types of things we would talk about.
They give us a dispersant plan, and EPA is aware of that. Our federal on-scene coordinator is trying to minimize dispersants on the surface, but there may be times that they're going to use them, but we need to use those in very judicious quantities. That means we’re going to be relying on in-situ burning and mechanical skimming in and around the wellhead.
Q And sand berms?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Sand berms -- at this point, the President made the decision last week, we authorized the six segments that were created by the Corps of Engineers. The state of Louisiana is working with British Petroleum. I understand they’ve got the funding mechanisms in place.
I think the real issue right now is availability of barges. There are a couple of barges that are starting to work right away, and I can verify this for you, but I believe the first place they're going to start working is somewhere around the Chandeleur Islands because the sand source is close enough where they can get to work right away. When you go to the west of the Mississippi River, they're actually going to have to take sand from offshore, actually deposit it on the seabed and then retransmit it to make the berms on the islands. That's a much longer process.
I’ve talked with Lieutenant General Van Antwerp, head of the Corps of Engineers, about their ability to free up dredges from other projects to be able to help them. The state of Louisiana is also looking nationally at dredge capability. And right now it’s a matter of finding the dredge capacity to be able to start doing some work. But they're ultimately going to have to take a lot of sand, move it in close to shore, and then move it again.
If they come up against a capacity problem in dredges, we can do something called a waiver of the Jones Act, which would allow us to bring foreign-flagged dredges in. But that would be -- I would consider that only as a last-gap fill-in that might be needed. I don't think we’re there yet. And Louisiana has not come and told me that yet.
MR. GIBBS: Just so -- I think you’re aware and if I’m not mistaken, each night the Joint Information Center’s fact sheet contains an updated number in the amount of surface and subsea dispersants used so people should be able to track each day how much is used.
Q On the claims process, what role is the government playing or could the government be playing in going in there and actually managing it for and with BP? And also, I want to ask you, on royalties, is BP committed to paying federal royalties as far as you’re concerned on the oil that’s collected?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I’m not sure on the royalty issue.
MR. GIBBS: Let me check on that.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: On the claims process, what we’re trying to do is create independent government teams for every state, facilitate them, the state getting together with the BP claims processor to identify problems and move ahead. There’s actually a fairly novel idea being approached in Alabama right now and that’s training National Guardsmen to go out and assist folks in filing claims. So you actually kind of have a multiplier effect. And that’s being discussed actually today between Tracy Wareing and the folks in Alabama.
So we will have teams in every state that are able to do that. The question is getting out to these folks. I had some anecdotal evidence -- there are some folks who are just sitting back because they just think it’s not going to work, it’s too much trouble. Well, those folks have got to know, they come forward and put these claims in, they’re going to get paid. And we need to help them understand that and how to do it.
MR. GIBBS: Sheryl.
Q Thank you. Admiral, over the weekend Tony Hayward said that BP clearly was not prepared for a spill of this magnitude. The Coast Guard is the frontline agency in responding to oil spills. So what about the Coast Guard? Did you discount the possibility of a major blowout in the Gulf?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: No, we had always anticipated that could happen. In fact, in April of 2002, we actually ran an exercise on a Louisiana -- on an offshore oil port, which is only about 90 miles to the west of where this happened, and we envisioned a total loss of the wellhead for a number of days. It almost was a similar type of an event except it was in much shallower water.
In that national exercise, I was the national incident commander in the drill. We ran it out of the Superdome. And so we have known about these and planned for them. What’s made this one anomalous is the amount of area this oil is covering and the breadth from central Louisiana clear over to, at this point, Port St. Joe, potentially Florida. I don’t think any plan ever envisioned it would get out that far and disaggregate and have the requirement to have so many resources spread across such a wide area. Because you kind of think of an oil slick coming in en masse, and you think about the Exxon Valdez. That is what’s been different, and that, if anything, is taxing our resources. It’s the breadth and the complexity of the disaggregation of the oil, which I don't think was accounted for and anticipated in any plans.
Q Any reason why that wasn’t anticipated? Just never happened before? No engineers could have envisioned --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, when you usually do a response plan, you come up with a worst-case discharge or some amount that you plan against, and then you identify the resources that could be brought to the scene in terms of skimming, booming sensitive areas that are nearby, in-situ burning and so forth. And those were all identified. But if you have to replicate that across the entire Gulf, you start multiplying the resource requirements. And that's something we probably need to look at as the commission takes a look at the response.
I don't think it was any kind of lack of duty or anything like that. I think it was a peculiar set of circumstances that, frankly, weren’t anticipated and I think are going to have to be anticipated in the future.
MR. GIBBS: And look, we’ve said this before. I think the last time you saw a spill of this magnitude in the Gulf was off the coast of Mexico in 1979. And the President has asked the commission and the Department of Interior, as it looks through the regulatory framework of this, to ensure that we’re taking all precautions and all possible scenarios into account as, I think it’s probably safe to say, if something doesn’t happen since 1979, you begin to take your eye off of that then.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I think we need to be totally transparent and learn as much as we can from this thing. And I think everybody is onboard with that. If there’s something we could do better in the future and change our response plan, we certainly need to do that.
Q Admiral Allen, I'd like to ask you, personally you’ve really become the face of this spill over the past week and a half. I can’t imagine that's how you expected to end your --
MR. GIBBS: How’s your retirement, sir? (Laughter.)
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I told somebody I’m failing to get fired. (Laughter.) Well, yes, I didn’t anticipate this would happen at the end of my career, but I’m honored to have been asked to do this. It’s not a very easy job. It’s very complex. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with personally. But clearly, we need unity of effort, and that has to happen in some way.
What makes the spill very different, by the way -- and I hear a lot of talk, well, let’s bring DOD in and things like that -- when you have a military operation, you’re operating under what we call Title 10 of the U.S. code, and there’s a monolithic chain of command from the lowest soldier, sailor, or Coast Guardsmen clear to the President. In this one, we have a lot of different Cabinet departments with roles and responsibilities and missions required to conduct out there, and the real goal, in this type of environment, in any incident that takes place outside DOD, is unity of effort, not unity of command. And that's what we’re trying to achieve here, because there are a lot of stakeholders, a lot of people have responsibilities.
A good example is the shared responsibility between Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA. Fish and Wildlife Service has marine mammals and endangered species. NOAA is responsible for commercial fisheries and natural marine fishery service. Well, they both have equities out there in the Gulf, and the question is how do you create that unity of effort? And that's the real challenge.
Q And are your public responsibilities of doing briefings such as this -- do they take away from the incident commander part of it?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, this is always a very valuable practice. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Sort of a softball, Mark, but -- (laughter.)
Q On the skimming and the shoreline, you say that the boom isn’t a silver bullet. Where are the -- how many skimmers are actually out there now close enough to shore to be doing some good? And are there really no other higher-tech techniques to protect the shoreline other than the booms? Are there new technologies that haven’t been tried in past spills?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, we actually have a separate team that’s looking at alternative technologies and when we get requested to take a look at them, we’re actually evaluating some of those. There are very different types of skimming capability and some of them are effective in different parts of the water. The question is getting the right skimmer for the oil that you want to recover in the depth of water and where it’s at.
Big ocean skimming systems are much different than what you do in five or six feet in the back bay. And you have some types of skimming systems that actually are drums and the oil sticks to it, they roll up and then it’s scraped off, and they continue to capture it in containment device. There are some systems where you’ll have a boom with a pocket at the end -- you carry the oil and you evacuate it out. There are some systems that actually will take a circle and drop it just below the surface of the water and have the oil kind of flow into it, almost like a drain, recover it and pump it out.
And so there’s a lot of stuff out there. What we have to do is match the type of skimmer, the quantity of skimmers, with the vessels we’ve got. And that’s how this -- the characterization of this response has changed and we’re having to adapt with it.
Q And that’s been hard to get in close enough to protect the --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I think ultimately, the best thing we need to do is probably get these vessels of opportunity because these are watermen that know local areas; they have boats with the right draft that can operate there and match the right skimmer to them. And that’s the process that we’re going through right now.
Q You mentioned the vessels of opportunity were not on hand until recently, the additional platform is still on its way to the site, the systems for compensation are still being set up and finalized. Can you address the perception that, as Savannah put it, the response has just consistently been a couple of steps behind the problem?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, I think we’re adapting to an enemy that changes. The nature of this oil spill has changed continuously since day one. We had a lot of oil in one spot to begin with. Based on the currents and the wind, this has all been disaggregated. And as the spill has changed, our response has had to change.
For instance, oil or hurricanes or any weather are agnostic to boundaries between states. All of our response organization and structure is by states and our captain of the port zones. And so the difference between the incident command in Houma and incident command in Mobile, there’s actually a division of labor that is the Pearl River that divides Louisiana and Mississippi. And when you start talking about one these things, that’s an artificial boundary. So we have to learn how to adapt. And as these thing gets broad and goes across different jurisdictions and authorities, then we have to change our command and control structure and we have to adapt to it.
And then you can say there’s a latency period there. And were we slow to react? You could say that, but I think we’re trying to adapt and learn from a spill that’s never happened before in this country.
Q Thanks, Robert. I have two oil questions, and I have one non-oil question -- are you taking those now, Robert, or after?
MR. GIBBS: We can take them now.
Q All right. First, you said over the weekend on “This Week” that you’ve issued an order that journalists are to have unfettered access to the disaster sites. What I want to know is, what’s going to happen -- what are you going to do to BP for preventing journalists from getting access to these sites both prior to now and going forward?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, if we have to we can issue an administrative order from the federal on-scene coordinator. If they violate that, there’s civil and criminal statutes associated with it. But we haven’t issued an order like that. I put out a general guidance that there are only two reasons that media should be prohibited from an area -- if it’s a security reason or a safety reason because of personal protective equipment. Other than that, we are putting no restrictions on access.
Now, we can’t tell somebody to talk to somebody if they don’t want to. But my policy is, unless it’s a security or safety reason, there is no restriction on access.
Q Is that system nimble enough? I mean, if BP calculates that keeping journalists away from oily birds is more viable than whatever your penalty is going to be down the road --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, I guess somebody would have to give me the specifics of an incident and we’ll go take a look at it.
Q If I want to take a picture of an oily bird and they told me to go away --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, it’s hypothetical. If you give me the facts, I’ll react to them and tell you what we would do or can do.
Q BP employees seem to be under the impression they can’t talk, if you talk to them down there -- they’re not permitted.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, we’ll follow up with -- I’ll have a call with Tony Hayward.
Q My second question -- director James Cameron says he offered to help film the site, the disaster site, and BP told him no. And what he says is that currently the video stream we have, the only video we have, images of the actual leak, are controlled by what he characterizes as the “criminals.” Doesn’t he have a point that maybe it’s worth some risk to have someone other than BP provide images of that leak?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I know he met with Lisa Jackson and some of our folks who were in the room. I would just make this observation -- and I haven’t talked to Mr. Cameron myself. All the video that’s coming out of that operation right now, from the remotely operated vehicles, is available, okay? And we’ve made that -- actually, there was some concern when we started the top kill process that it might put too much pressure on the operators, and BP actually wanted to have a delayed broadcast to remove that risk in the control room. And it was decided, after a conversation between myself and Tony Hayward, that the need for transparency overwhelmed whatever additional risk might be created by that.
So -- and the other thing you have to understand is they’re conducting what they would call simops -- what the industry would call simultaneous operations. Within about a one square mile area around that wellhead and the riser pipe and everything else, at any particular time you could have between 14 and 20 ROVs operating down there. The need to de-conflict those for safety reasons is a valid one.
When we were using the riser insertion tool, if you remember, when we started that they had to stop and reinsert it. The reason they had to do that was the ROVs that were doing the subsea dispersant application and the ROVs that were working the insertion tube actually bumped into each other, and it caused the tube to be dislodged and they had to do it again. So there’s an issue about density and the amount of ROVs you can bring down there.
And I appreciate Mr. Cameron’s comments, but I believe trying to put one more ROV down there might actually increase the risk to the operation, and there are a number of ROVs operating down there.
Q Robert, off the subject of oil, does the President have any reaction to the controversy over Helen’s remarks that were publicized Friday?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I’ve not spoken with him directly on that. I would say this, Tommy, I think those remarks were offensive and reprehensible. I think she should and has apologized, because -- obviously those remarks do not reflect certainly the opinion of I assume most of the people in here, and certainly not of the administration.
Q Admiral, on the question of disaggregation, which I think means breaking up --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q I assume that --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Should have used simple sailor talk. (Laughter.)
Q Just a lowly reporter.
MR. GIBBS: Not too simple. (Laughter.) Family broadcast, sir. (Laughter.)
Q Does that make it more difficult? Does that make it more --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Yes. Well, yes and no. It makes it more difficult, but when it comes ashore, it’s not in a mass at a point where you have a huge impact in one place. And I wouldn’t even say it’s a silver lining, because if there’s oil on the water, nothing but bad happens. But it does lessen the impact where it does come ashore because it’s not coming ashore en masse but it’s coming ashore at a lot of different places.
Q You mentioned, I think, hundreds or thousands --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: It’s increasing vastly the complexity of the response, yes.
Q And is it naturally occurring, or do the dispersants add to that?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: It’s all of the above. When it came to the surface there might have been in-situ burning going on, there might have been mechanical skimming, there might have been dispersants being applied. The next day, the wind may have shifted, so you have some oil went this way; the next day some oil went that way. You have currents moving it around; tidal currents as well.
So depending on when the oil came to the surface, under what environmental conditions, could have created a small batch of oil and moved it one direction, then another one another direction. And that’s what we’re dealing with. It’s not a monolithic spill.
Q On balance, is the use of dispersants worthwhile even though it breaks this up and makes it harder to skim or stop in different places?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I believe they’re worthwhile, but I think there’s enough concern as we approach the million-gallon mark. And I think specifically from Lisa Jackson and Jane Lubchenco, regarding the unknown implications of that amount of dispersants, that out of caution, even though we may need it from time to time, say, to suppress volatile organic compounds, we need to have a minimum amount of dispersants we’re using and only when it’s the most appropriate and we need to use them to achieve a particular effect, and then focus all of our dispersant application at the site of the leak.
Q -- to have used that much?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, actually we have. We have suppressed them on the surface, yes.
MR. GIBBS: And the directive that went for a much greater reduction in the volume I think is now several weeks old.
Q Given the delicacy of this containment cap solution, are you confident that it will remain effective during the months it will take to dig the relief wells? And what kind of maintenance steps needs to be done down there? And were there ever -- would a scenario ever arise where it might be -- you might have to stop producing the oil to fix or upgrade or whatever the solution down there?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I don't think we should ever be comfortable with the containment operation. We ought to be watching it very, very closely. We ought to be ruthless in our oversight of BP, and trying to understand what oil is not being contained that's leaking out around that rubber seal, once we know what that flow rate is. And we need to understand completely that if we have severe weather in the form of a hurricane, there may be times where we’re going to have to disconnect that operation and reestablish, and during that time we’re going to have oil coming to the surface again. That's the reason I’ve said this is a long campaign, and we’re going to be dealing with this oil for the foreseeable future.
MR. GIBBS: April.
Q Several questions. One, has BP or this government consulted with the British government on issues of resources and the British military in efforts to help? And if so, what was said?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I would say I have no contact with the British government per se, but we have looked at foreign offers and assistance. We have taken boom and skimming capability from overseas and accepted that, and BP has made a number of purchases from overseas, especially the Middle East where the type of equipment we want is there. They actually bought it and flown it in. I’m working with our military to the extent that they can add value. We’ve had Canadian forces down that have actually been flying some missions with their aircraft. So there’s been a lot of international outreach, but nothing direct with the British forces.
Q Why not tap the British government, especially since BP is based over there? Why not?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, we can certainly reach out and contact them. Anybody that has anything to bring to the fight we’re considering, and if it takes an ask, we’ll do that. That's fine. I have no problem with that.
Q And also, another question. You’re talking about optimizing production. Let’s get into lessening waste. Is it cost-effective to recycle some of the wasted oil that has been spilled, and how --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well --
Q Go ahead.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Yes, almost all the recovered oil is recycled one way or another -- with the exception if it’s contaminated sand or debris. That actually in some cases can become oily waste or hazardous waste; has to be treated in accordance with EPA guidelines. And Lisa Jackson has gone out and really looked. We actually have been to a couple of facilities to make sure we know how they’re handling the oily waste. And there are certain ways that it has to be disposed of properly in landfills or other places, and those are following EPA guidelines.
Q So marshland oil, things with maybe some reeds or --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Yes, when you have anything that's got oil on it, it becomes -- has to be disposed of in accordance with federal law, just like waste oil or haz-mat would be, yes.
Q And with the deposits, it’s not cost-effective to even try to do that?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, some of that disposal is done through incineration. There are some things they can do. But in general, if the oil can be recycled or reused or reclaimed, that happens. But if it gets to a point where it’s just plain oily debris, then we dispose of that in accordance with federal guidelines. And EPA is consulting with us and making sure those are met with.
In fact, when Lisa and I go out and visit the various sites, one of the things we look at are two things: number one is waste disposal and how they’re doing decontamination. Almost every forward operating base has a decontamination station. We do it for boom, or individual boots or clothing where you go into this. It’s all washed off, it’s put into a tank. The oil is decanted and then recycled.
MR. GIBBS: Let’s do Sam and then we should go to this meeting.
Q Just a quick question. Can you discuss the benefits and the shortcomings, going forward, of action requiring oil companies to drill relief wells simultaneously to the production of oil? And would that have helped in the current situation, had BP actually had that relief well up on line even before the spill took place?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I have not had that discussion. I think that would be a legitimate point to be raised and put in front of the commission as they do their work.
MR. GIBBS: I would say that would fall under, I think, Sam, the regulatory framework that the commission will evaluate in order to determine the best way to operate this in a failsafe atmosphere, moving forward.
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