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Coast Guard Chief: Mother Nature Complicating Gulf Cleanup

As cleanup efforts intensified in the Gulf, the White House suspended its plans to authorize new offshore drilling. Jeffrey Brown talks to Admiral Thad Allen, the head of the Coast Guard, about where efforts stand to stop more oil from leaking into the Gulf of Mexico.

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    I spoke with the commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen, at the White House about all this just a short time ago.

    Admiral Allen, thanks for joining us.

    There doesn't seem to be a lot of good news today in terms of the ability to stop the spread of this. What is the biggest problem you're facing?

    THAD ALLEN, U.S. coast guard commandant: Well, Jeff, the biggest problem we're having right now is trying to figure out exactly where the oil is going to impact shore and make sure we have the proper resources there to defend the shoreline.

    One of the really complicating factors in this response has been the shifting of the wind. So, we have a trajectory for two or three days, and then the wind will shift, and it will appear to go another direction. And it has appeared to be impacting either Mississippi or Alabama, and now probably Louisiana, over the course of the last week or so.

    So, I would say the largest complicating factor right now is getting a good trajectory and then getting the resources in place to be able to defend the shoreline. Obviously, we would like to have the spill not happen at all. And the real issue we're trying to deal with is really 5,000 feet down on the seafloor at the wellhead.


    Yes, well, how — what's going on there? Because at the same time as are you trying to deal with the — stopping the spread at the shore, the leak continues.


    We're doing several things.

    First of all, I think everybody needs to understand — it has probably been explained in detail — there is something called a blowout preventer that is built on top of the wellhead that is intended to actuate and actually shut the wellhead down in the event of a problem.

    That either partially activated or didn't activate at all. When the mobile drilling unit sunk, then there was leakage around the pipe that connected the mobile drilling unit to the wellhead. And that is the emanation or source of the oil right now.

    We are attempting to do a couple of things. One is, using remotely operated vehicles, to try and close that blowout preventer and actually seal it temporarily. Absent that, we are trying to figure out a way to check the oil and then pipe it to the surface through domes called cofferdams.

    Most recently, we're going to attempt to put a pipe down and actually put dispersants right at the point of discharge from the pipe and see if we can't disperse the oil before it rises to the surface.

    The real novel thing about the cofferdams and dispersants down there, this has never been tried at 5,000 feet of water before. But we're trying everything we can in our arsenal technically to stop the leakage. In the long term, the only solution is to drill a relief will, reduce the pressure, and cap the existing well.


    You know, there's clearly a lot of anger out there still about what happened in the first place and what seems to many people to be kind of a slow understanding of the seriousness of this.

    Earlier today, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal talked about — about whether BP has committed enough resources to do all of this, adequate resources at work right now. Do you think BP has acted responsibly in all this?


    Well, by law, BP is what called the responsible party. And it's our job to ensure that they act responsibly.

    They have been doing that, but everybody needs to understand that there is immense pressure being put on them by the Coast Guard and the entire federal government to hold up their end of — of this bargain. And we continue to do that.

    Now, the real issue is what happened and what is the cause of that. And, several days ago, Secretary Napolitano and Secretary Salazar both signed a convening order for Minerals Management Service and the Coast Guard to take apart this event, from both what happened on the bottom, which is Minerals Management Service purview, and with the Coast Guard, who is responsible for the floating assets above, and really develop a set of facts, so we can know really what happened, because the source of this entire event happened as a part of the failure of the blowout preventer to perform. And we need to understand why that happened.


    But to go back to the ongoing problem of containing it, on the one hand, as you just said, and administration officials say, you have to hold those responsible accountable. On the other hand, BP is still your working partner, for all practical purposes, in — in dealing with the problem right now, right?


    That's correct.

    And that may seem a little bit anomalous or a dichotomy to a lot of the folks in the United States, but you need to understand that both Minerals Management Service and the Coast Guard are regulatory bodies that oversee what goes on out there.

    The very advanced technology, including robotics, that is used to do mining on the seabed floor is all in the private sector, so there is a delicate balance of employing them in the response and holding them accountable, but understanding, in the long run, they are also accountable for whatever the source of the mishap might have been. And there will be an accountability piece as we move forward in the investigation.

    And it is something we manage routinely in other oil spills. It has just never happened on this order of magnitude in our recent history.


    And, speaking of order of magnitude, what — what are we really looking at? I mean, there is conjecture about whether this could reach or exceed what happened off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, what we all know happened with the Exxon Valdez.

    What — what — and, again, also given the inability, as you said, to stop the leak at this point, what is the worst-case scenario you are looking at?


    Well, let me compare and contrast the Exxon Valdez with this event.

    The Exxon Valdez was a vessel with a fixed volume, so we understood very, very clearly how much oil was there. In this case, we — it discharged 11 million gallons — in this particular case, there is a well that goes down 18,000 feet to the reservoir of oil below the floor of the ocean.

    There is open connection now to the sea and to the surface. And we really won't know, until we get that well capped, exactly how much oil going to be released. We're working on a worst-case scenario, and we're moving all resources in place to address it.


    And, in the meantime, as you said, the impact on the coast really depends right now, I mean, in the next couple of days, on the weather, on the sea?


    It does. Unfortunately, Mother Nature gets a vote, and that's one thing we can't control, but we must react to it. We must be quick, agile, flexible, and bring all assets to bear, including working with our state and local partners, and holding BP accountable.


    All right, Admiral — Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, thanks for joining us.


    Thank you.