TOPICS > Science

Adm. Allen on Oil Cleanup: ‘We’re Negotiating How Clean Is Clean’

September 20, 2010 at 6:18 PM EDT
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Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen speaks with Jeffrey Brown about the permanent sealing of BP's blown-out oil well, what has been learned to prevent or contain future disasters, and what must be done to clean up the Gulf of Mexico and the fragile coastal wetlands.

JEFFREY BROWN: When reports first broke five months ago of an explosion and fire on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the initial word was that no substantial amount of oil was leaking. The rest, of course, is history: the nation’s largest oil spill, a catastrophe that led to major environmental and economic damage along the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas.

BP’s Macondo well was capped in mid-July, stopping the gusher. But it wasn’t until yesterday, after cement was pumped in from a relief well, that government and BP officials said it was killed for good.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen was the government’s point man on response for the entire time. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Thad Allen, welcome.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN (RET.), National Incident Commander: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain what’s happened now, the difference between the well being capped and being effectively dead, as you put it yesterday. What’s happened?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, we effectively shut in the well on the 15th of July, when we put the capping tack on stack on it. From that point on, there were no more hydrocarbons released into the Gulf.

But what we had to do was permanently seal the well. There’s always a threat of hurricane. And, ultimately, you don’t want any chance that any of that oil can get up from the reservoir to the surface. A while back, we cemented the drill pipe itself. What was left was the annulus for that part outside the drill pipe between that and the annual formation that required us to actually complete the relief leave well and cement it from the bottom. And we did that this weekend.

JEFFREY BROWN: Effectively dead means to a very high level of confidence?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: It means there is no path for oil to get to the surface through that well.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Is the well closed and off-limits forever? Is there a chance that BP or someone could come back to it?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, that would be a policy decision above my pay grade. But what is going to happen next is something that is actually called plugging and abandonment, because they will eventually fill that well completely. We have completely cut it off, so it can’t leak right now. But under the supervision of the Department of Interior, they will go through a more formal way to completely fill the well up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in response, the president said the government remains committed to — quote — “doing everything possible to make sure the Gulf Coast recovers from this disaster.”

Now, sitting where you are now, in your mind, what are the most important things that still need be to done?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, there is still oil out there, and there’s oil in the marshes in and around Louisiana, on the beaches in Mississippi sometimes. And Alabama and Florida still will have some come ashore.

The next step is to completely clean up the beaches and marshes, at least to the extent that we can without harming them. There are some times where are you better off to leave a marsh alone, rather than have mechanical means being brought in there and actually harm the marsh itself. We are actually negotiating how clean is clean with each state and each…

JEFFREY BROWN: How clean is clean is a negotiation?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: That’s a euphemism we use at the end of an oil spill to say, is there anything else we can do? And, sometimes, there will still be oil there, but then the agreement is that there can be no more technical means applied to it, and we’re all going to agree that this one is done as far as what we can do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in terms of the great unknowns out there, when you say there is still oil out there, we still don’t quite know how much oil, right? And we don’t know how much of it may have settled on the seabed.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: We know a lot about what has come ashore. There is a lot of controversy, a lot of talk out there about what subsurface oil may exist.

I have been working very hard over the last several weeks with Jane Lubchenco to try and unify the federal effort…


ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: I’m sorry, with NOAA — to unify the federal effort as far as monitoring for subsea oil with a lot of the state and local academic institutions in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi to try and unify our data gathering, so we can actually create a picture of what the Gulf looks like and where the oil is at below it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have any — any personal sense at this point about how much might be out there, I mean, in the seabed?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, I think there’s a lot of conjecture. We have been taking data almost since the event started. And we find background traces of oil. And, every once in a while, we will find aggregations of small droplets.

But it’s usually in background or trace quantities. What we really need to find out are — is whether or not there is oil, say, in the sediment on the seafloor out in the deep part of the Gulf. And we’re putting together a unified plan to deal with that right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Looking back now — early on, of course, there was a sense that the government was too deferential to BP. They had the technology. We were told so. You had to work with them. There was this question of, is it a partnership or who is in charge early on?

What did you learn? What did you and the administration learn about dealing in a case like this with a private company when they have the technology, but you need to be in charge?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, there were a couple things that cost considerable angst to the country. And I understand that.

A lot of it was passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires that the responsible party pay. And if you are going to have them writing the checks and you’re making a decision at a command center, they need to be close by you, because you have to act in coordination.

That doesn’t mean that your decision-making is subordinated to them, because you have an overall responsibility and accountability to oversee what is going on. You are right that the government doesn’t own the means of production to drill for oil wells. And the technology that was used at the bottom of the ocean out there is very, very sophisticated in the hands of the private sector.

But we created a science team headed by Secretary Chu from the Department of Energy and basically conducted oversight over the engineering decisions that were made, and actually consulted with BP. And, at times, if they were not going the way we wanted them to be, I had to issue them orders to say, no, do this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were there moments of great frustration for you in trying to make that happen?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: It wasn’t great frustration, because generally I think the engineers from BP and our science team all wanted to head the same direction. It is just a different understanding from applied engineer for oil field engineers and some of the folks on the science team that were trying to say, have you exhausted all these possibilities?

And I think, in many ways, the BP folks weren’t used to working in that environment. But that’s what government was there to do, to make sure we were asking questions and they were giving us the answers.

JEFFREY BROWN: To this point, do you think that BP has done all it said it would do? How — what is your assessment of their performance now?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: My assessment of controlling the well after the discharge is, they have done pretty good.

The problem was, there was no existing mechanism to produce oil and bring it to the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, because it is all brought back ashore by piping systems, pipelines. They actually had to bring in production systems from the North Sea and Africa to develop that system that ultimately capped the well on the 15th of July.

So, from a technical standpoint in controlling the well, I give them very high marks. As far as understanding and dealing with the local population, through a third-party contractor, with claims and things like that, they are a large oil production company. And dealing with people one-on-one in transactions, it’s not a core competency or capacity they had in the country — company.

And that is the lens by which most people in this country viewed their response. And I think that was the center of where their challenge was.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about — another relationship was between the federal government and the states. There were moments along the way of tension there, where they wanted to do something. You had to assess it, sometimes say no. Did you learn anything? Because you have been through several important disasters now in your career, have you learned something about the federal-state role in something like this?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Oh, I think so. I think we all found out that Tip O’Neill was really right. All oil spills are local.


ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: And the way you interact with a state or a local municipality has to do with how they manage emergency operations. And that varies by state.

The real complicating factor was that most of the states and the local municipalities were used to dealing with us, the federal government and FEMA on hurricane response, which basically provides grants to local governments, and let them use the resources to do the response.

In this one, there is federal primacy, and the coordination is done through the federal government. That didn’t sit well with some of the local governments, who are used to having the resources and being able to act freely. And it wasn’t a matter that we didn’t want to cooperate with them. It was a matter of law.

JEFFREY BROWN: Has this all now — as you are stepping away from this at this point, has this made you rethink the safety of drilling at depths like this?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, obviously, we had a blowout preventer that failed to work as it was envisioned. I think we lacked response capability out there for dealing with the loss of well control at that depth. I think they have engineered a system now that could be the basis for response systems in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean we have learned?

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: We have learned how to create a response system to deal with an uncontrolled well at the bottom of the ocean. I don’t think the response plans that were built over the last 20 years ever anticipated this would happen. And that was a failing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, as you step away now, what do you say to the people in the Gulf? They are clearly going have to live with this for a long time.

ADMIRAL THAD ALLEN: Well, they are a very remarkable and resilient people. I found that out during the response to Hurricane Katrina.

But they have had a lot of stuff laid at their door. And I think we need to understand that long-term recovery should be the goal. They have a way of life that has been threatened down there. And the long-term cleanup of this oil, the long-term recovery, making sure that the Gulf is restored to the way it was before this event happened, those have to be primary goals for everybody. And it is a national asset that we have down there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, thank you for joining us.