Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and National Incident Commander Thad Allen, 7/1/2010
1:46 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. We are lucky to be joined today by our National Incident Commander -- and I’m sure you all read the press release yesterday, newly retired Admiral Thad Allen, joining us today sans his several decades of uniform, to give us an update on the BP oil spill, our response to Deepwater Horizon. And I will give it over to him.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Afternoon. As you can see, my wife’s taken me to a men’s store in the last couple weeks. (Laughter.)
It was an honor to serve in the United States Coast Guard for 39 years, and today I transition to a senior executive on Secretary Napolitano’s staff as I carry on my duties as a National Incident Commander.
So with that quick overview on what’s going on, as you know, the hurricane passed by, generated some swells and weather up towards the well site that required us to delay bringing onboard the third production vessel, the Helix Producer, which we thought we would have online by today. We will need about three days after the weather calms to less than three to five feet for that vessel to be able to hook up to the flexible coupling that it will be required to do. So we’re looking at somewhere around mid-week next week to bring the third production vessel online. It will bring our capacity up to 53,000 barrels per day.
In the 24-hour period that ended last night at midnight, we actually recovered 23,000 barrels. The Discovery Enterprise had to stop operations a couple of times due to lightning in the area. As you remember, we had a situation a few weeks ago where lighting struck the derrick and caused a fire. So there are some safety reasons why they might have to stop from time to time. And the Q4000 actually flared 8,200 barrels.
Regarding the relief wells, Development Driller III now is at a distance of 11,641 feet below the seafloor. As you know, they’re going through a series of operations which we call ranging. They’re into their fourth cycle of this. In ranging, they withdraw the drill pipe and put down an electrical cable and actually try and sense the magnetic field around the wellbore. They are within around 15 feet of the wellbore at this point. They will continue down 700, 800 more feet, slowly close into the wellbore, and when they know they’ve got it exactly in range, know exactly where the drill pipe is in relation to the wellbore, then they will attempt to move in and drill through the wellbore and then the casing as well. At that point they’ll be in a position to be able to try the bottom kill or to be able to insert the mud, and hopefully after that, put a cement plug in that will kill the well.
Development Driller II is 6,720 feet below the seafloor and is making progress as well.
Our onshore and near-shore skimming and recovery operation has been significantly hampered by the weather. The small vessels that do the skimming have a difficult time operating out there; we had to pull them back. The same with the vessels operating in and around the well site itself.
The drilling rigs were able to continue, but we are now massing our forces to be able to move right back out once the weather will allow us to get on the water and skim. In some of the areas such as Barataria Bay and other places we were able to have back bay skimmers and actually make some progress there. But in general, waiting for the weather to abate so we can move on with recovery operations.
MR. GIBBS: Happy to take questions on this or other topics today.
Q For Admiral Allen, can you talk about this new 20-meter safety zone, and if that was done at BP’s request, or what the reason is to do this at this stage in the crisis?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Can you be more specific?
Q The safety zone for vessels around plumes and other oil response.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Oh. It’s not unusual at all for the Coast Guard to establish either safety or security zones around any number of facilities or activities for public safety and for the safety of the equipment itself. We would do this for marine events, fireworks demonstrations, cruise ships going in and out of port.
Q Right, but we’re so far into this disaster now, why do it now and why the new --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I actually had some personal complaints from some county commissioners in Florida and some other local mayors that thought that there was a chance that somebody would get hurt or they would have a problem with the boom itself -- had not presented itself before, but once presented with it, the logical thing to do.
Q So it wasn’t a BP request?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Not at all.
Q And one really quickly for you, Robert. On the climate bill, is it -- I think some environmentalists are under the impression that the administration is now asking for a vote before August, and limiting any kind of cap or pricing to the electric utilities -- is that accurate?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we have said that -- and the Senate has said that after coming back from the recess, one of the things that they will do is likely take up energy. We think that’s the right thing to do. The President had a good meeting a couple of days ago with bipartisan -- with senators from both parties that have led on this issue. We’ve not made any final determinations about the size and scope of the legislation except to say that the President believes, and continues to believe, that putting a price on carbon has to be part of our comprehensive energy reform.
Q So he hasn’t decided yet to limit it to just one industry, for instance?
MR. GIBBS: No, again, this is -- whether this is energy or immigration, this is going to have to be something that’s discussed with Democrats and Republicans alike.
Q Thanks. First for the Admiral. Do you believe -- will skimming operations start again this weekend, or do you know when that will start again?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: It depends on the type of skimming equipment and the sea state. Some of the larger vessels that operate offshore will be able to get out quicker. When you get over three to five feet, some of the smaller skimmers -- say, 30, 40 feet in length -- have a very difficult time operating and being effective. So it will be weather-based.
Q There were some rumors in the financial markets today that the well had been capped, which is obviously not true. Is there any information that we haven’t gotten about progress --
MR. GIBBS: Including me. (Laughter.)
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Nothing that I’m aware of. I would say this, as they get closer to the wellbore, getting into the position to make that final drilling into the wellbore and the casing itself, there is a chance -- slight chance -- they could nick the wellbore. Because of that, they have a vessel up there that’s full of mud waiting to be able to shoot it in if they have a problem there. But nothing to my knowledge.
Q Robert, along the same lines, can you give us an idea as to when the administration will be releasing its new report on -- or its new decision on the offshore drilling moratorium?
MR. GIBBS: I think that will come from the Department of Interior, I would expect in the next few days.
Q In the next few days?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Great. And one non-oil-spill-related question -- there’s growing fear among economists and financial markets about the possibility of a double-dip recession. The President met with Chairman Bernanke earlier this week. Is that a concern that the President has, and is there -- are you preparing plans or a way to address that now?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we continue to work towards improving our economy, creating an environment for job creation. The Senate took up I think two days ago a cloture vote on our small business lending initiative that the House had previously passed. Obviously we believe financial reform is a big part of our economic recovery so that we don’t find ourselves in the same situation this September that we did two years ago.
So I would just simply say we continue each and every day to look at and to monitor events here, and obviously we now understand over the course of the past several months the news that -- from overseas, how much that can affect our markets here and economic prospects here.
So the economic team continues to look at and advise the President on anything that they believe would be important to continuing our economic recovery.
You heard the Vice President a week or so ago come in here and describe the ramping up of projects inside the Recovery Act that’s taking place this summer. We’ll get new jobs numbers obviously tomorrow. And we’ll get a chance to evaluate sort of where we are.
Q Does that word, “double-dip,” come up in those morning economic briefings?
MR. GIBBS: Look, that’s -- our economic conditions and the plight that we face, based on the fact that what we’re -- the pothole that we’re in, if you will, if you look at that chart, what I mean by that is the chart that I showed you guys on the amount of job loss, of 8.5 million jobs, obviously you’re always concerned about the trajectory of and the fragility of that recovery. That’s been the case, though, honestly, Jeff, since the moment we walked in here.
So it’s -- the state of the economy is constantly on our mind.
Q Robert, on immigration reform, what are the chances that enough Republicans will come onboard and that this will get done this year, in 2010?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, if you had, as you heard the President say -- look, well, let me start it this way. I think where there’s a will there’s a way, right? If there’s a will among Democrats and Republicans, specifically Republicans on this issue, then there’s a way. We know that’s true.
We have, as you heard the President talk about, Republicans that have supported this in the past that haven’t been as supportive or as vocal in their support of comprehensive reform as they have been in the past, as they were when, as the President lauded former President Bush for dealing with this issue.
We know this, that the issue of immigration and immigration reform has been in the news a lot lately because of the steps that were taken in Arizona. We understand that we can’t have each state have its own immigration law, and that it’s up to those in Washington to solve the problems that have existed, quite frankly, for many, many years.
So where there’s a will on the Republican side of the aisle, there will be a way forward on comprehensive immigration reform.
Q And on the oil spill, if I may, House Republicans today released a report that’s critical of the administration’s cleanup efforts. Specifically they say they have evidence that administration officials “have misrepresented key facts, including the number of assets dedicated to cleaning up the spill, the timing of when officials knew about the oil leak.” What is your response to that?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, I think we’ve been pretty transparent throughout this response. I’ve stood up here and talked to you all very frankly. I’ve given you the numbers that we have. Those numbers are rolled up from the reports we get from the folks that are downrange there.
I’ve been downrange myself. I’ve been to all four states; I go frequently, traveled both with the President and the Vice President this week. Every indication I have that the numbers are coming up are the numbers that are there.
You can always find a place where there’s somebody on the beach not cleaning, where it’s empty, and you can find a piece of water where there’s no skimmer; it’s just that big an area down there. But this thing has evolved from the start, and from a massive monolithic oil spill to thousands and hundreds of thousands of small patches of oil. It’s required us to change our tactics, move to a more skimmer-based approach from the boom approach that was originally requested by the governors. But I think throughout the entire life cycle of the event we’ve been pretty up front with the resources that have been out there.
Q So it’s more about the complexity of this operation rather than transparency?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, it’s no doubt it’s the most complex thing we’ve ever been involved in. It’s transformed itself way beyond a normal oil spill response. And early on the governors were very concerned about protecting their resources with boom, and we put a lot of boom out. And we’re at a point now where were double- and triple-booming places. And our goal is to approach 200 percent of the basic boom requirement, to just continue to do that to make sure we’re protecting everything as much as we can.
But the fact of the nature of the spill has changed. We had new flow rate numbers several weeks ago, as you know. That’s put a premium on skimming capability -- all kinds of skimming capability, very shallow skimming capability into the back areas like Barataria Bay, to the very heavy-duty skimmers offshore. And we’re very aggressively acquiring those right now. The spill has evolved and we’ve evolved with it.
MR. GIBBS: Let me just add to this. I scanned a portion of this. Part of what he purports to address is that somehow it took the command 70 days to accept international help. That is -- it’s a myth that has been debunked literally hundreds of times. There were already 24 foreign vessels that were operating in the Gulf before the State Department announced two days ago additional international assistance. As early as May 11th, boom had arrived from Mexico, Norway and Brazil.
Part of the report mentions that our failure to waive the Jones Act has been a problem; that, again, a myth that has I think been debunked on any number of occasions. And I would say one thing to Congressman Issa, Plaquemines is spelled P-l-a-q-u-e-m-i-n-e-s.
Q Two questions.
Q Can I follow up on that, though?
Q The first one to Admiral Allen, about the skimmers. I understand that there is somewhat of a super skimmer, a mega-ship called “A Whale, from the Taiwanese. I just wonder what is the status of approval on that and how effective do you think that ship will be?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I’m not sure I’d call that a skimmer. I think that’s a developmental project that we want to see how it works. The owners made an offer to bring it down at their expense and have it operate in the Gulf area to see if it could be effective. We have worked with EPA and other regulatory agencies to give it a go, and it’s down in the area; it will be ready to operate in a couple of days.
We’re anxious to find out how effective it will be. But it is a very large ship that’s been converted to be able to recover oil, and we’ll see how it goes.
MR. GIBBS: We can get a timeline for you. It I think came from Portugal, was retrofitted until mid-June in Lisbon, and then made its way down to the Gulf.*
Q Do you have high hopes for that?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, we have high hopes for anything that can be effective down there. As you realize, this is an all-hands-on-deck evolution. We need to mass our forces, and anything that’s effective we’re looking forward to using.
Q And, Robert, to follow on Dan’s question about immigration reform, I just wondered, the President is famous for saying that nothing in D.C. happens without a deadline. Why not set one?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, this is -- we’ve made progress on this before. We know Washington can do this. But unless or until Republicans that have been doing this before, that have been supportive of immigration reform, that have spoken out eloquently about the need for it -- until they get back into this game -- and by that I mean into the legislative arena to solve this problem -- it’s not going to get solved. And people should understand that.
We all know that despite what you learned on Schoolhouse Rock, it’s not 50, it’s 60 votes in the Senate, right? Probably to rename a courthouse it takes 60 votes, right? There aren’t 60 Democrats in the Senate and they’re not necessarily -- of the 59 that are there, or that normally vote with the Democrats, they may not all support it. You have to have the support of the many Republicans that have in the past believed that comprehensive immigration reform was the only way to move forward.
Q So if this doesn’t get done, is this the President’s fault or is this a Republican failure?
MR. GIBBS: I think it is clear -- if it wasn’t clear before today, the President laid out exactly what the problem was that we’ve been facing for years. He laid out very specific solutions to what needs to happen. He is ready, willing and able to work with anybody. But unless or until those on the Republican side come back into this arena and decide this is a situation that they want to solve, it won’t be solved.
Q Admiral, what is the percentage chance that the relief well project is going to work? Is it close to 100 percent? And what do you think now -- can you pick a date and say when it is really going to happen?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I’m not sure I’m willing to attach a percentage to anything we’re doing in this spill. I will tell you this. Contrary -- unlike some other things that have been done on the seabed out there at 5,000 feet -- you heard me say before, we’re doing something we’ve never done before. Relief wells are things that these companies have done before, not just BP, but all the companies. The methods they’re using, the technology they’re using, it’s all been proven in the water, on land.
So I think we have a little bit better basis by which to understand the potential for this to be successful. In fact, they’re not reinventing the wheel, if you will, it’s something they’ve done before.
We’ve mitigated the risk by having the second well be dug. I’ve had a lot of detailed briefings and I’ve discussed this quite in detail -- the technical issues associated with this ranging in how they do that, and this is a very precise method for locating that wellbore.
So I think we stand a good chance -- I’m not sure I’m going to put a number on it. The current goal is by mid-August. We’re slightly ahead of schedule. But I don’t think we ought to say -- we shouldn’t come off that mid-August date until we know they’ve actually gone through the wellbore.
Q But “good chance” doesn’t sound very optimistic. It sounds like you’re --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I’d rather under-promise than over-deliver with you folks. (Laughter.)
Q Following -- same with us -- on the “Whale,” a little more on that, 21 million gallons it can scoop up a day. I mean, it sounds like it could be the closest thing you’ve had to a silver bullet yet if it works. I mean, do you see it that way?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, we’ve talked before about modifying tankers and whether or not we could do that. This is one where they actually went out and modified it. The others, we were waiting to have them modified. That’s the reason this one is in the fight.
A couple unusual things about working around this well site: First of all, it’s very congested. We can have anywhere between 20 and 30 vessels, a number of ROVs operating around there. Industry would call that simultaneous operations, or SIMOPS.
The oil is only suitable for that type of collection within a few miles of the wellhead itself because that’s when it comes up as a pretty good size slick. It becomes disaggregated after that. So if you have a huge tanker capable of 21-million-gallon capacity chasing down half-mile slicks, that’s probably a different type of platform you want to use for it. So we’re going to have to use it right around the well site where it’s got the greatest economy of effort in dealing with the oil and where it can give us the greatest return on investment. I think we just need to see how it works.
Q Robert, if I could ask you about unemployment insurance, who’s to blame for Congress leaving town without passing this? And how much of a role did the President play? Did the President aggressively get in there and push for this, or did he leave it to Congress?
MR. GIBBS: Well, this is -- I think last night’s effort was the fourth effort to -- this one was a scaled-back version of unemployment insurance through I believe November, with I think a home tax credit added as well.
Look, again, this is -- it’s an example of it takes 60 votes to get something done. It shouldn’t take 60 votes to get the long-term unemployed -- to make sure that the long-term unemployed do not suffer an interruption in what they need to keep going. It certainly doesn’t make any economic sense.
And we will continue to push Congress and to work with them -- obviously we’ll -- Senator Byrd’s replacement will be at some point back into the voting of all this as well, which obviously is one of the things that we’re going to need. But we’ll continue to push forward on this so that -- again, I think if you just look at the economic sense of if you’re an unemployed -- if you’re somebody who’s unemployed, if you’ve -- we now obviously have the type of chronic long-term unemployment that greatly exceeds the previous worst case, which was in the early ‘80s. We’re well past that.
If you’re worried about long-term economic growth you have to be worried about the long-term unemployed. They are -- it’s obvious that if you’re unemployed you’re far more likely to take your benefits and use them to keep going. That money obviously gets into the economy rather quickly.
So we will continue to push forward on this and try to convince 60 senators -- we got good help last night from two senators from Maine -- to try to get what shouldn’t be hard to get done for the American people.
Q Some Republicans say Democrats are just using this as a political issue, they want the issue more than they want the vote, and that the White House is involved in that, too.
MR. GIBBS: Chip, we have -- again, I think if you read any article about the plight of those that are unemployed and have been unemployed for really long periods of time -- we’re seeing that like we’ve never seen it before. We’re seeing that impacting not just lower-wage, lower-skill jobs; it’s impacting those that have been employed for long periods of time prior to this, that have college educations -- folks, quite frankly, that are not used to being in the pool of what would be in a normal recession considered likely to be long-term unemployed. But we’re seeing that in a way that we’ve never seen it before.
If they’re worried about the politics of this issue, it seems to me it just makes common sense to ensure that people that cannot find work because the recession that we’re dealing with is greater than anything we’ve dealt with since the Great Depression -- why on Earth would you take a group that has been chronically unemployed and for some reason stop their unemployment benefits? It just -- economically, it makes absolutely no sense at all.
Q A few weeks ago, one percentage figure that has been used by the President, and I believe you, Admiral Allen, was 90 percent -- a few weeks ago the President said that in a few weeks 90 percent of whatever it is, the gas and the oil, the carbons coming up from the floor, would be capped. Where are we on that? Ninety percent of what?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Ninety percent of the flow coming out of the wellbore right now.
Q Which is what?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, the current estimate is 35,000 to 60,000 barrels a day from the last flow rate estimate. Let me walk you through the sequence -- it’s a good question.
Right now we have three ways to remove oil from that wellbore -- the riser pipe that goes up to the Discovery Explorer [sic], and the choke and the kill lines -- those are the lines we tried to push mud down during the top kill exercise. We are taking oil out of two of those right now. We intend to take oil out of the third, the kill line, with the Helix Producer once the weather calms down. That will take us to a capacity of 53,000 barrels a day.
Now, we don’t know what that’s going to do to that picture you see of the imagery with the vents open and the oil. We would like to get that down to where there’s a minimum amount of oil escaping as possible. But it’s never going to be zero because if it goes to zero that means water could intrude and we’d have a hydrate problem with the capping device.
BP has proposed, and we are reviewing right now, the placement of a new cap on it, which would -- they would actually unbolt that stub section of pipe that was cut off. That’s what we call -- that wide area is called a flange -- actually unbolt the flange and actually put another containment device on that we bolted on that would ensure a complete seal. And when the President talks of achieving a greater than 90 percent recovery rate, he’s talking about with the new capping device.
They’ll be in a position to do that in about two to three weeks, and also provide redundant production capability on the surface -- it will take us to 60,000 to 80,000 barrels a day production capacity.
They did that at our direction because we wanted two things. We wanted redundancy, so if there’s lightning in the area and somebody has to shut down we could keep producing. We wanted additional flexibility to be able to unhook and hook up faster in the event of a hurricane. And we also wanted a risk mitigator against a complete failure.
Q So this new device would essentially replace the three that you have online or are about to have online?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: It would allow us to actually run four lines with the new cap, yes.
Q When will the President make the determination on when to approve that second cap?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: No decision like that is forthcoming right now. We’re technically reviewing all of those options right now.
MR. GIBBS: Also, to add a little context to what the Admiral said, the hope for the kill line to the Helix was obviously the end of June -- largely around today. Because of weather, equipment had to be taken off of the Enterprise that’s needed for the Helix. So the date for -- which the Admiral said earlier in the briefing -- is sort of midweek next week to bring the kill line to the Helix online that would take us what we believe to a capacity of around 50,000 to 53,000 barrels a day.
Q But that’s not 90 percent.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: No, the 90 percent is achieved with the second cap.[NOTE added to the transcript for clarification: As Admiral Allen clarifies below, by increasing our containment rate to 53,000 barrels per day, we’ll be collecting 90% of the hydrocarbons that are leaking into ocean – given the current high end of the estimated flow rate.]
Q Which is two or three weeks after what happens next week, right?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Let me be specific here. If we’re close on the flow rate, the 35 to 60, we could get there with the 53. But we’re not assured because it’s not a perfect seal.
Q And you said -- maybe I was confused -- you said that it was -- the bore -- the relief well was in 15 feet of the wellbore, but you said there’s several hundred feet left to bore. I’m not sure I follow you there.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: It’s within 15 feet, side by side, going down, and it’s slowly getting closer until they’re sure they know exactly where they’re at and they can go in for the kill.
Q Robert, a question for you, back to Congress and pending legislation on the war supplemental. House Democrats want to trim I guess it’s $500 million from the President’s Race to the Top program in order to offset the war supplemental. What’s your feeling about that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we -- obviously the President has put a lot of energy, as Secretary Duncan has, into the Race for the Top, which is where this money that Congress is looking to take a part of. Understand this -- and I think it’s important that we have a little perspective over what Race for the Top has done -- and that is 40 some states that have applied for this have made -- have basically undergone the type of education reform that people had hoped to see in this country for decades.
That has happened based on the incentive of these investments. We do not believe that taking money out of that important investment makes any sense at all. The President has been clear with Congress about the fact that that doesn’t make any sense at all. I believe we can come to a conclusion on this as we’ve given them additional places to look for cuts that shouldn’t require taking away from that important investment that has led to fundamental education reform in this country.
Q Can it lead to a veto?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think it will get to that. But the President has been very clear with the leaders in Congress that that money is a -- is important and is a big priority for this administration.
Q Thank you. You and the President both on immigration have made clear that it’s the Republicans who are blocking this from moving forward. Was one of the purposes of the speech today to make it crystal clear to the people who care about this issue that it’s the Republicans’ fault this hasn’t moved?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that’s just the legislative reality that we live in. Again, if you had given that speech three or four years ago, you would likely have -- you all could name the Republicans that you were likely to have seen statements from that supported comprehensive immigration reform.
I mean, the reality, Laura, is that you can’t -- again, you’ve got to get 60 votes. There aren’t that many Democrats, and you’ve got to get Republicans involved. This is a problem of national significance and it is going to require Republicans to be part of that solution.
Q Was this a political purpose, in the sense that you were hoping to direct the anger from the Hispanic community elsewhere?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think -- look, keep in mind, I don’t think it’s just the Hispanic community that cares about immigration. This is not about directing anybody’s anger. This is about working toward a comprehensive solution. We can’t find ourselves having a series of patchwork immigration laws that change every time you see a sign that says “Welcome” to a different state. It has to be done in a comprehensive way, and we have to do this together.
Q But given that everything he said this morning he has said in one place or another over time -- granted, not all in one speech -- but has said before, and that you’ve said before, in fact, how did this speech advance anything?
MR. GIBBS: Well, this is -- because I think we are -- we have talked about immigration reform over the course of the last several weeks mostly as it relates to what is happening in one state, right? You’re not going to solve the immigration problem, again, one state at a time or a series of states at a time. This is a topic that has been talked about for many weeks now, and the only way to solve it is once again for Congress to come together, Democrats and Republicans, and pass a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform.
Q Robert, is the homebuyers’ tax break extension going to be signed today as well?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know the answer to that. Let me check on --
Q Also, were you able to get an answer from last week when you were asked about Steny Hoyer suggesting -- considering the possibility of raising the retirement age for Social Security?
MR. GIBBS: Steny Hoyer, or -- that was -- I thought it was -- I was asked about Alan Simpson, was I not?
Q It was Hoyer, also last week.
Q Hoyer said --
Q Simpson also --
Q I went back in the transcript, you were asked about Hoyer.
MR. GIBBS: Oh, I don’t remember being asked about Hoyer. I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll try to look into it.
Q Any thought on the five Democrats that voted for the new oil spill commission? Do you think that undercuts the President’s oil spill commission?
MR. GIBBS: No, look, there are -- there has been some suggestion, I don’t think it’s well placed, that somehow the commission that the President set up is too -- is made up of too many sort of pro-environment members. We’ve got a commission member from Alaska who has supported drilling in ANWR. The co-director -- the former EPA administrator under George Bush is on leave from the board of Conoco-Phillips. There’s no way to look at what has happened and what has to move forward in terms of the type of regulatory structure without including voices from industry, and that’s what we’ve done.
Q But you’re not worried about dueling commissions, or --
MR. GIBBS: No, again, I think we’ll get this in a place that makes sense moving forward and that gives us a strong report and a good framework, again, for the type of regulation that’s needed to make this type of activity safe again.
Q Admiral Allen, with the State Department announcement a couple of days ago, what can you do now that you couldn’t do before with the assets that you are now bringing in from outside?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, actually, four to six weeks ago, when we saw the skimmer issue start to emerge and we saw a shifting landscape from booming requirements to skimming requirement, we talked to the State Department. They sent a cable out -- I believe it was around the 13th of June -- actually soliciting input from the countries; a lot of that has come back now. We’re in the process where we can screen it, actually do letters of acceptance and we’re moving on that right now.
We have well over 100 offers. We’re going through them right now. Roughly about 40 of those have been accepted and we’re reviewing all those right now. But we’re looking at everything very, very seriously.
Q So mostly you’re increasing skimmer capacity?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: It will come from three areas, basically. Obviously we’re looking for any foreign assistance that can be provided. We’re actually -- almost all the skimmer production capability in this country now is tied up in the orders we placed out for the next four to six weeks. We have an emergency rulemaking that was announced yesterday that would ease some of the requirements for standby equipment around the country for other operations that could flow those to the Gulf as well. So the combination of those three together are allowing us to mass our skimming forces in the next four weeks.
Q And if I read the EPA announcement on dispersants correctly yesterday, they said they’re safe but that there still needs to be more testing of the way the dispersants are interacting with the oil and its composition as it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Is that correct?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: The two big deals on dispersants are we’ve never used them in this quantity before, whether it’s subsurface or surface, and we’ve never used them subsurface. And I know Lisa Jackson -- we’re very good friends, we talk about this almost daily. She is concerned -- she understands when there’s an operational imperative of why you need them, and there are times when you do need to do that. But there also is an imperative to do sampling and testing and understand the impacts of the dispersants while they’re being used.
And it’s a tradeoff, it’s a tradeoff operationally and sometimes it’s a tradeoff on safety, because dispersants reduce volatile organic compounds, which are a workplace problem for the folks that are working on the ships out there. So what we are trying to do is understand more about the dispersants, use this as a learning situation to get more data and where we’re going. And we all generally agree, if we can ratchet down the use of dispersants, focus more on skimming and in-situ burning, that’s a good thing. But there’s a floor to which we’re probably going to get to because there are opportunities we can’t achieve to mitigate the impact of the oil other than using dispersants. The question is where is that right spot.
Q So we don’t know yet exactly how safe or unsafe and whether there’s a significant environmental tradeoff --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, we know the dispersants are less toxic than the oil. And we also know that when you make a decision to use dispersants, you’re deciding to have the fate of the oil and the ultimate impact of the oil be absorbed in the water column, not the shore.
MR. GIBBS: But, Major, I would just say that’s why we continue to do that type of testing.
Q I just want to make sure I understand.
MR. GIBBS: Right -- to ensure that -- as the Admiral said, you’re using this in quantities not previously seen.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: The same would apply to air quality monitoring around in-situ burnings and the flaring that’s going on out there.
Q A couple questions for you, Robert. You said, the last time I was able to ask you about this, that the final legal language with BP about the $20 billion fund and the $100 million for the -- wasn’t finalized. Has it been finalized yet? And is that --
MR. GIBBS: I can check with -- I can check with DOJ.
Q Because Bill had said that you’d release it when it is finalized. Is it finalized?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check. I don’t know the answer.
Q Okay. A couple of other non-oil spill things. Are you comfortable, Robert, with the way the Romanoff endorsement from former President Clinton went down? And would you be encouraged if there were more direct communication between the former President and the political arm of the White House about things going forward?
MR. GIBBS: Good try. Look, the President -- President Clinton has relationships that extend a long time back, and will make endorsements for a whole host of reasons, including that. So, look, I was asked if we had -- if we heard from him prior to that endorsement, and the answer to that was no.
Q Would you like to in the future?
MR. GIBBS: Before you guys? Sure. (Laughter.)
Q Do you feel the need in any way, shape or form, to coordinate these things, or to at least discuss them informally before they’re publicly acknowledged?
MR. GIBBS: I think I answered that, despite your many attempts at creating a news story.
Q All right. The President wants the Bush tax cuts that apply to the middle class to be extended. What is the mechanism by which he’s going to have Congress achieve that before the end of this year?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check with Legislative Affairs on that.
Q Okay. Lastly, do you expect the supplemental funding to be resolved this week? At least on the House side.
MR. GIBBS: Look, it certainly our hope is that. I don’t --
Q Obviously these conversations are intense -- you feel confident about that, you think that you’re going to get a vote this week?
MR. GIBBS: They were -- there are conversations that have been had even today on that. I’m not going to get into whether it’s this week or the first week they’re back. But, again, we think this is something that can be worked out, giving the President and our troops the funding that they need in Afghanistan without taking money away from important investments like Race to the Top.
Q Robert, can you talk about the President’s meeting today with Senator Reid, what he said about the immigration --
MR. GIBBS: Look, they’re going to have an opportunity to talk about what is going to be on the Senate’s agenda moving forward when they get back. Obviously between now and the end of the year, the Senate will take up and I believe approve Elena Kagan to be the next Supreme Court justice. I think we’re making good progress on ratifying the New START treaty; energy, which we’ve talked about earlier; small business lending and unemployment benefits -- all of that will be on the docket today that they discuss, so largely the agenda moving forward.
Q The President asked -- made it clear today that Republicans are the only way this is going to happen if immigration doesn’t -- he met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus this week and with advocates. Does he plan to meet with any particular Republicans in the coming days and weeks?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don’t know -- I don’t have any meetings that are headed in the future. Obviously he made not too recently a series of calls to five Republicans and continues to be in contact through Legislative Affairs and the chief of staff’s office on how we move forward.
Q Lastly, the President is going to sign this afternoon or this evening the Iran Sanctions Act. Can you talk a little bit about what he expects that to do or why -- what his assessment of that is?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, this I think -- we have seen over the course of this year, we have seen Treasury make designations regarding activities and doing business with Iran. The United Nations has passed the strongest sanctions on Iran that we’ve ever had. We have -- our allies in Europe are working on continuing to make progress. The Congress has weighed in. And I know that the Treasury will continue to work on designations so that we can increase, quite frankly, the pressure on the government of Iran to live up to its commitments and give up its nuclear program.
And this is -- none of this stuff is a silver bullet, but all of it continues to make progress to give what we believe is far more than sufficient incentive to start to comply.
Q Are there things you want the allies to do that would mirror what the Congress has done in that regard?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I don’t want to speak directly for them but I know they continue to work on it.
Q Just financial regulatory reform briefly, the President hoped to sign it this week; it’s now going over to next week in the Senate. Is there any -- or, sorry, till after the break. Is there a danger that you lose votes over that break? Are you confident that you’ll have another Democratic senator back in place in time to get something done?
MR. GIBBS: Well, to the next question -- to the last question, yes. Look, obviously the events of the passing of Senator Byrd certainly have delayed for the time being the passage of financial reform. I do think it’s important that if you go back to January or February or even a few weeks ago, it wasn’t -- it was a question of whether this was ever going to come to be. I don’t think that’s now up for any debate. It’s just a matter of when. And I think when we get back, the President will -- when the Senate and House get back, I think the President will very quickly have an opportunity to sign the strongest regulations dealing with the financial industry that we’ve seen put in place since right after the Great Depression.
Q Admiral, very quickly, have you decided -- are you going to be going back down to the Gulf or have you decided where you can now be most effective at this point in the spill? Are you better used in Washington or is it better for you to be down in the Gulf area?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: I think it’s been about a 50/50 split thus far. Things going on in Washington this week having to do with the meetings with the Cabinet secretaries and BP officials regarding the transition of the systems we talked about earlier. I’ll be down there next week, will be traveling around. I hope to get out to the Helix Producer as it’s hooked up. But I’ll move back and forth.
Q Okay. And Robert, can you give us an idea of what the President will be doing over the holiday weekend?
MR. GIBBS: They -- when he returns tomorrow from the funeral, he and the family will travel to Camp David, and then be back for fireworks and such here on Sunday. We’ll have more details in terms of --
Q Will he have guests on the lawn?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Will we see the President tomorrow on the jobs numbers?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. We’ll have guests there, yes.
MR. GIBBS: Ethan will be here on Sunday.
Q Like military or something?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Can you talk about the Netanyahu visit on Tuesday and what it will involve, how public it will be?
MR. GIBBS: Right. Look, the President obviously looks forward to hosting the Prime Minister, who had to cancel a meeting obviously last time. I think they’ll host -- discuss a series of important bilateral issues, the implementation of Israel’s recent policy changes in Gaza, regional security, our ongoing proximity talks, and the need and the hope to get quickly to direct talks. The visit I think is scheduled for the 6th and we do have a -- we’ll have a pool spray there, yes.
Q And can I -- some Jewish groups are disappointed that the President hasn’t been to visit Israel yet. Is anything along those lines in the works?
MR. GIBBS: None that I’m aware of.
Q Robert, on immigration, one thing the President didn’t mention in his speech this morning was a temporary guest worker program, which obviously was a big sticking point the last time around and something that business groups say must be part of any compromise now. Why didn’t he address the idea and does he support a temporary guest worker program that would allow immigrants to come here without being put on an eventual path to citizenship?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what you just mentioned is certainly part of the details that are ultimately going to have to be worked out because there are different ways -- if you go back into the debate in ‘05, ‘06, and even in ‘07, there were different ways to structure guest worker programs. Some, as I think you just alluded to in your question, structured it in a way that, come here for a certain amount of time and then go back before coming into the process of potentially staying here.
So obviously that is certainly one of the aspects that have to be worked through. The President sat down with Senator Graham and Senator Schumer and applauded their framework in moving forward. And obviously this is part of what would be important for Democrats, Republicans and the President to sit down and start working through.
Q So he’s open to different approaches?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I’m not going to close the President’s options. What we need is a group on the other side that’s willing and ready to have that meeting.
Q For both of you, to get back to the House Republicans’ report about the federal government’s response, spelling aside, their bottom line is that they don’t believe they can get -- they’re getting straight answers from the government with regard to the positioning of assets, to the point where some are suggesting that the government make available GPS information about where things are down there.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: We have put Coast Guard officers with every parish president. We have Coast Guard liaisons for Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Those liaisons are working down at the county level. I visited there earlier this week with the Vice President. We met with Governor Crist in Florida. These officers are there to cut down on decision time, deploy resources. We’ve had a tremendous response on vessels of opportunity that have signed up to get their boats out there.
We are putting locating devices on that, providing tactical communications, and integrating that with air surveillance. We have partnered with the 1st Air Force and we’ve taken control of the airspace in the Gulf, especially the temporary flight restriction zone over the well site, so we can integrate all that together to make it more effective. Any local leader down there that has a question on asset deployment and priorities just needs to turn to his Coast Guard liaison officer.
Q Is it in a sense real-time information?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, ultimately what we’re going to have is this displayed on what we call a common operating picture, and anything that’s got a locating device can be seen on a website. And hopefully this data will become more available as we get it up and operating.
Q Thank you, Robert. A question for the Admiral and a question for you. Admiral, when you spoke to us at the end of May along with Ms. Browner, you mentioned that a science summit was going to be held at the beginning of June at Louisiana State University. Have they released a report, a white paper, from that summit or can you summarize any of the results?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: It is done. The report is out. If I can follow up and tell where that’s at, we’d be happy to do it.
Q Okay. And Robert, recently Senator Durbin and Congressman Don Manzullo from the President’s home state of Illinois wrote the Pentagon complaining about the bidding process with a contract. It seems as though IDT, a company in Belvidere, Illinois, had been asked to bid on a contract to make protective barriers for troops. And they were turned down and the Defense Logistics Agency promptly asked a British company, Hesco, to rebuild. They filed a complaint with the General Accounting Office and, as I said, two Illinois members of Congress have complained. Is this something the administration is following?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know if you’ve talked to DOD on this. I have not seen the correspondence on this but I’m happy to look into this with DOD.
Q Will you?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Thank you, Robert.
Q One for the Admiral. You said that the onshore skimming activities have been significantly disrupted by this heavy weather. Does that mean that more oil than you would normally expect has been coming ashore in the last few days? And given the fact that this was a fairly sort of moderate storm as to what you might expect in hurricane season, has the disruption it’s caused caused you to sort of reexamine the contingencies you might face if there was a more direct hit from a hurricane?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, the surge we’ve had in and around Louisiana has been two to three feet, so there’s some areas where the oil would probably be further in to the beaches or the marsh areas than it would be before. On the other hand, weather that gets violent like that has an emulsifying effect and actually breaks up the spill. I’m not sure they counterbalance each other that well, but we’ll be out there and be able to assess that very, very quickly.
As it relates to hurricane preparedness, this is something we’ve been working on for well over two months. We understand there are going to be challenges associated with especially with evacuating the wellhead site and the production units that are out there. The number one priority will be safety of life and moving those people far enough ahead of the storm so they don’t get involved with the evacuation of citizens. Our general timeline for dealing with a storm will start at about 120 hours away from when we predict gale-force winds will be at the well site.
MR. GIBBS: April.
Q Admiral Allen, the last time you were here I asked you a question about the dispersants and the oil and you said over time it would biodegrade and you said you would get back to me as how long it would take for the biodegrading to occur. Do you have that timeline?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: We do. And if we didn’t get back to you, that’s my apologies -- we’ll get that to you. Jane Lubchenco and NOAA are the ones that are developing that information and we get it from them, and we’ll make sure you get it.
Q Do you have -- do you remember any kind of roundabout time --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, it has to do with actually how the oil has been treated and the fate of the oil. Dispersed oil will biodegrade quicker. Undispersed oil will weather and ultimately -- it all biodegrades, it’s part of the metabolic process of the Earth. It’s a question of how fast it happens.
Q Well, what I was asking at the time, Van Jones, a former green czar here, said that it’s about -- dispersants are not “disappearants,” and he said it goes down and it’s more toxins that go down to the bottom of the ocean. And you said over time it would biodegrade.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Over time the oil will biodegrade -- yes, it will. It will.
Q Okay. So maybe 10, 20 years or --
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Oh, no, it’s much sooner than that. And if we didn’t get you the response, we’ll get it to you.
Q Okay. And also, Robert, on immigration. The work visa issue has been a contentious point for many, many, many years, even going back to Vicente Fox when he was President of Mexico. What’s the President’s stance on the work visa issue?
MR. GIBBS: I think this was one of the questions that we had earlier. Obviously there are a number of different proposals that -- timelines, differences about how long you’re here, whether you go back before you become part of the line. All of those are issues that would need to be worked through, Democrats and Republicans.
Q And what kind of safeguards would be put in place to make sure that some Americans will not be without a job so other people from other countries will get those jobs?
MR. GIBBS: Those are the types of things that have been addressed in previous legislation. Obviously one of the things that the President worked on with Senator Grassley was as you get -- obviously as you get work permitting done, you’ve got to create a database to ensure that there are not -- you’re not having undocumented workers and you don’t have businesses that are hiring those. All of those, again, are part of the comprehensive proposal that Congress needs to get into.
Q Solicitor General Kagan seemed to have done very well with all the people grilling her during her confirmation hearings except for one. Arlen Specter thought that the hearings lacked serious substance, were not revealing, and didn’t meet the standards that Kagan herself had set in the 1995 Chicago University Law article she wrote. What’s your response to Senator Specter’s complaints about the quality of the hearings and the information that the Solicitor General --
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think -- I didn’t see Senator Specter’s note on that. I know at one point in the hearings on television he said that she was being very forthcoming. Obviously you’re not going to get into discussing cases that you may hear in front of the Supreme Court, and that’s something that has -- that’s been the case for quite some time.
Again, I think she was candid, she was forthcoming, and I think she’s going to be not only approved by the committee but approved by the entire Senate.
Q A question for each of you. Admiral Allen, could you give us an update specifically on the contamination to the fishing grounds? Has it been contained in some areas? Has it spread? Has it gotten worse? Just really from top to bottom where we’re at right now on Gulf fishing and the industry.
ADMIRAL ALLEN: It tends to move around based on the trajectory of the spill and this is something that NOAA has responsibility over through the National Marine Fishery Service. Jane Lubchenco and I and the Vice President met with some fishermen down in the Gulf earlier this week. And one of the things we’re trying to do that did need to happen -- there wasn’t a synchronization between the closures of the state of Louisiana, for instance, and how long they gave advance notice when they closed the fishery and what the federal government was doing as far as the advance notice in closing their fishing areas. They now have an agreement and they will do that on the same schedule so it will be the right notice for the fishermen.
Generally as soon as they can clear an area for fishing, they will do it based on the trajectories. And when they close it, they’ll give a 24-hour advance notice from noon one day till noon the next day. And I believe -- and I don’t have the percentage in front of me right now -- I believe it’s about somewhere around 33 percent of the Gulf that is covered by the closure area right now, but I’d have to confirm that.
Q As you know, some boats have been docked. Has there been an effort or has there been a way to get these ships back into the waters?
ADMIRAL ALLEN: Well, that was a -- that’s a terrific question. We spent a long time in Louisiana at a fish house where the people actually take the crabs and so forth and then ship them out. The gentleman there was on the verge of having to close down because he had not got his claim paid yet to be able to keep operating. Once he closed down, there were 30-some vessels that would not have a place to bring their catch.
The Vice President spent almost two hours listening to them, talking to them. Some of them choose to try and stay in the fishery and fish where they can. Others want to come into the vessel of opportunity system where they get paid and we use them to deploy boom and do the things out there that we’re trying to do for spill response. And it’s a little bit mixed about what they really want to do. Right now, a very small percentage are trying to still fish where you can fish. Most of them are opting to go to the vessel of opportunity program.
Q Thank you. And Robert, on health care reform, there are some reports, there’s some evidence, that as some of the provisions are getting ready to be rolled out, that in some parts of the country, quite frankly, local offices, state and regional offices, are not prepared to handle some of this. Have you heard these reports? Is this something that’s on the radar screen?
MR. GIBBS: I have not -- I have not myself have heard it. I will -- I can certainly see if any of the folks downstairs have. Obviously we rolled out a new website today that allows consumers to get -- put themselves back in control of their own health care through a lot more transparency at healthcare.gov, which provides a ton of information for consumers that are interested. I’ll check on the -- thanks, guys.
2:41 P.M. EDT
* Below is the timeline for when the A WHALE was first mentioned, when its modifications were completed, and when it arrived in the Gulf.
June 7 - Coast Guard R&D Center received white paper on the concept, selected it for further evaluation
June 15 - A WHALE finishes modifications for skimming in Portugal
June 24 - Vessel arrives in Norfolk, Va., and is visited by Coast Guard personnel
June 25 - Vessel departs Virginia
June 30 - Vessel arrives in the Gulf for evaluation