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Coast Guard’s Allen Outlines Roles of BP, Government in Gulf Oil Cleanup

May 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the Gulf oil leak continues, Jeffrey Brown speaks with Admiral Thad Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, for the latest on the spreading contamination and what the government and BP are doing to contain and halt the leak.
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JEFFREY BROWN: So, the persistent question and growing criticism: Is the government giving BP too much leeway, and should it take more control of the situation?

This afternoon, a top BP official said — quote — “It is clearly within the government’s power to take over operations if it wants to.”

A short time ago, I talked about that and more with Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, national incident commander for the oil spill.

Admiral Allen, thanks for joining us again.

There seems to be mixed messages from the government in recent days. Secretary Salazar said the government would — quote — “keep its boot on BP’s neck” for results, and, if necessary, “We would push them out of the way.”

Now, what does that mean? What would it take to push BP out of the way?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant: First of all, let me tell you I have the highest regard for Secretary Salazar. We’re great friends and he is a great mentor to me.

And I think, as far as stepping on the neck, obviously, that is a metaphor moving forward. There probably is a legal precedence to remove BP from this operation. But, as the federal on-scene coordinator and national incident commander, I wouldn’t recommend it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wouldn’t recommend it? Why not?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, first of all, what is unique about this problem on the ocean floor is that all the capability and capacity to bring to bear on the solution is owned by the private sector. There is a role for government here in terms of oversight and making sure they do what they have promised to do.

And we ask really tough questions regarding critical thresholds on safety and things like that. But BP is the responsible party. They have the means to do this. We just need to make sure they do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that’s I think what — I think what is confusing to people is to — to — you use a term like BP is the responsible party. And then we hear the tough talk about pushing them aside. So, can you just clarify, who is, in fact, in charge of all this?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: The response is being run by the federal on-scene coordinator. Currently, that’s Mary Landry, who is headquartered in Robert, Louisiana. She works directly for me as the national incident commander.

I’m reportable and accountable to Secretary Napolitano and the president. I would tell you, I understand Secretary Salazar’s frustration. We talk all the time about this. And there is no difference between us on keeping pressure on BP.

We can — we probably could legally do something else about the status of BP. All I’m saying is, as the national incident commander, I wouldn’t contemplate making that recommendation at this time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is the federal government in fact dependent on BP because of the technical requirements and the resources?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, I’m not sure dependent is the right word. The private sector is involved in this drilling, and the government has an oversight responsible. But those capacities, those technologies are not replicated inside the federal government.

If you equate that to dependency, I suppose you could, but what it really is, is the fact that BP has the means to fix this problem, and they need to be held accountable to do it, but with proper oversight. And that’s our job.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the press briefing you gave a little earlier today, you said that the question of taking over from BP would raise the question, as you put it, to replace them with what?

What did you mean by that?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, I have talked to other chief executive officers of oil industry companies. And I have tried to get a sense of whether or not the lines of operations and effort that BP is proposing and carrying out are anything different than anybody else would do.

And the fact of the matter is, many of these interventions are exactly what happened with wells on dry land. What is anomalous about this particular case is, it’s happening 5,000 feet below the — the surface of the open, there is no human access to the spill site, and the technologies needed to do that are in the hands of the private sector.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, also, at that press briefing, you said — quote — “Some of the sessions with BP have been inquisitorial in nature.”

Now, what does that mean? Can you give us an example of where you have pushed BP to do something?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, the big discussion a week ago last Sunday was the final discussion on the go-ahead with the top kill option, which is proceeding as we speak. And that discussion centered around whether or not there was enough information about the condition of the blowout preventer considering the pressures at the bottom and the top and the implications of pushing mud at very high pressures and weights down into that well to seal the hydrocarbons in advance of plugging it with cement.

And the type of questions that were raised by Dr. Chu from the Department of Energy, John Holdren of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House were, how did you come up with those calculations? Show us the math. What are the thresholds at which the well bore and the casings might be put at risk by the pressure, so you could create a greater problem, and what are your margins for error?

And that was a two-hour conversation, and it was exhaustive.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you are satisfied that, when you do push, BP has been responsive?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you know, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has been — raised questions and been critical of the federal response. Today, specifically, he was talking about the need for more boom equipment and for permission to build sand barriers. What is your response there?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, on the booming strategy, I think he has got a point. And this is one of those cases where I have gone to BP and raised a concern and they have been responsive.

I had a really long talk with Tony Hayward over the weekend about what I call the retail end of this response. And that last mile, where oil is impacting the shore, and we need to move cleanup teams there very, very quickly. And the ability and the agility for not only British Petroleum, but our entire team, to do that needs to improve.

And, in fact, he was down there today working on that. Regarding the barrier islands and the berms, the Corps of Engineers is taking a look at this. I understand the idea. I understand how they perceive the effectiveness of these berms would be against stopping the oil. But we also understand it will take six to nine months, maybe a year, to build some of these.

A lot of issues related to the environmental impacts. Corps of Engineers has to responsibility to review the permit. We are working with them in parallel, so there won’t be something that has to be done when they are down. We can give them a combined answer. And we’re only a couple days out from that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you are not — it’s not clear to you whether or how realistic it is to build such barriers at this point?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: That’s correct.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe they could work. What I mean is how effective is that right now in regards to the spill response? There is nobody that values barrier islands more than I do, after having been involved in the Katrina response.

JEFFREY BROWN: Our correspondent Tom Bearden was down there at Grand — in Louisiana. He talked to the Homeland Security Department for Jefferson Parish, who said — quote — “We realize that, if we’re going to save our coast, we have to take over.”

You have talked about this frustration that everybody is feeling. What do you say to local officials now who just don’t see enough happening?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, I think, in general, whether it’s the state and local authorities or BP or the Coast Guard, the entire unified command down there that’s headquartered in Houma, Louisiana, that is actually commanding all the operations in that area, we need to tighten up the formation, if you will.

We need to have quicker responses, more people out there. And we need to have a quicker reaction when oil is sighted on the beaches. In fact, that was the basis of my conversation with Tony Hayward this weekend.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, again, to go back to the comments from Secretary Salazar, are you concerned about the rhetoric, about the differences in the style of rhetoric and the forcefulness of it and what messages that sends to the public and to local officials?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, everybody feels very strongly about this. Everybody is frustrated. And some people are even just completely frustrated, beyond consolability.

My goal, as the national incident commander, is trying to keep my wits about me and make sure we have a conversation to move this thing forward as best we can. This is an undesirable situation for everybody. But I think, the more we focus on the results we’re trying to achieve and collaboration on how we do that, the better off we will be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Admiral, late today, the EPA said it would call on BP to significantly scale back its use of chemical dispersants. What you can tell us about that?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, first of all, I think we need to understand that the toxicity of dispersants is far less than the toxicity of the oil.

What we are dealing with here, however, is an anomalous situation where we have used dispersants far beyond the scale of any known in the history of United States spill response, upwards of 600,000 gallons on the surface. And I think legitimate questions are being raised about what the aggregate effects of those are, even if they are less toxic than the oil.

The question that has been asked of BP is, within the range of approved EPA dispersants, are some less toxic than others, and, given the amount that we are starting to use right now, should we reassess the one that is being used, and, if there is another that is available, what are the implications for logistics, supply, and what is the feasibility of doing that?

BP has answered those questions, and they are under review.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it sounds like the EPA has decided that these particular dispersants have potential damages.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, all the dispersants are toxic to some extent. The question is, are they more or less toxic relative to the oil, and are they available, and what are the logistic supply chains that could get them there vs. the need to have them right now? And I think those are the things that EPA is reviewing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, you did refer to the top kill maneuver, which has now been delayed at least one more day, until later this week.

Do you have a sense that real progress is being made at this point or is at hand?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: It is. One of the things that is very difficult to understand and is another source of frustration are the delays in the top kill effort.

What we are trying to do is reestablish connections to lines that were run down the riser pipe to that well prior to the accident, to be able to reestablish the ability to put drilling mud in there to kill the well and also hydraulic fluid to control the valves that need to do that.

That all had to be rebuilt and tested as we slowly bring pressures online. And every once in a while, there is a valve that needs to be repaired or replaced, and that is what we are running into.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Admiral Thad Allen, thanks for talking to us.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Thank you.