Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard's recently retired commandant who is staying on as incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, took questions at a White House press briefing yesterday.
Adm. Allen: "Well, I think you ought to be exasperated or dismayed if there’s any oil on the water. As I said earlier, it’s an insult to the environment."
As frustrating as it is and as long as it's taking, it appears that the federal government has the right person in charge of fixing the leak and cleaning up the mess. And short of federalizing BP's operations, it appears Adm. Allen has the authority and force of law to order anyone to do anything necessary (or veto same) within the realm of technical and logistical feasibility.
Following are some excerpts from his remarks...
Command and control:
Adm. Allen: So the command-and-control structure down there right now is the commanding officer of the Coast Guard in New Orleans is the federal on-scene coordinator for the response. We have elevated that responsibility to Mary Landry. She is in Robert, Louisiana, and she is called an area unified commander. That’s when you take one or more of these zones or these areas and you combine them under a larger command.
So we have a single command in the Gulf. The commander is Rear Admiral Mary Landry. She is supervising subsections. One is New Orleans. The other one is over in Mobile, and Mobile covers Mississippi, Alabama, and the western portion of Florida. There is another command at St. Petersburg, and another one in Key West and around up the East Coast. At this point, they all, for the purpose of this response, report to the area command in Robert, Louisiana.
At a higher level we have what we call a regional response team. Those are all the federal players that have responsibilities for an oil spill response. It would be Department of Interior, EPA, Coast Guard, NOAA. And they look at resource requirements across a regional area. Let’s say if you had a decision of where to put boom between Mississippi, Alabama, or Louisiana, they would coordinate with the regional response team.
If something gets large enough where there’s a national issue about how much boom is in the entire country or where to move dispersants, it would come up to the national response team. And the national response team is the same players, except in Washington in the interagency. So, for instance, the Coast Guard is on the national response team. We co-chair it with EPA -- NOAA, Commerce, DOI, and so forth. So there’s a way to bring up resource issues or policy issues that cannot be resolved at the lowest level, and work those all the way up the chain.
There is also the allowance in the national contingency plan that if the resource adjudication process or the coordination becomes complicated -- and it’s complicated in this place -- in this case -- that the President has the option of declaring something called a spill of national significance. Again, this is contained in the national contingency plan, and also have the option to designate a national incident commander, which the President and Secretary Napolitano have designated me.
Now, this is not a policy. This is a command-and-control structure. It’s actually contained in the code of federal regulations that implement the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. So when you hear us talk about responsible party, or the federal on-scene coordinator, we’re actually talking about legal definitions that are derived from statute -- the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 -- that are contained in 40 CFR 300.
What we need to make sure is they execute their responsibilities, the responsible party, and we carry out our responsibilities and be accountable as the federal on-scene coordinators. This is what we do, if BP is applying resources, there is an operation being conducted, and we want it to be done some other way, they’re issued an order by the federal on-scene coordinator, and they comply. And there have been adjustments made all the way along. And if I need to, I call Tony Hayward myself. They’re the responsible party, but we have the authority to direct.
They are responsible for the cleanup, how that's effected. Ultimately, we are accountable, from the federal government side, to make sure they do it. The law requires them, as the responsible party, to play a certain role -- to pay for it, to provide equipment, and so forth -- and particularly with trying to deal with the leak on the bottom of the ocean. They’re 5,000 feet down. BP or the private sector are the only ones that have the means to deal with that problem down there. It’s not government equipment that's going to be used to do that. So there’s got to be a way where private industry can address the problem with proper oversight by the federal government.
Capping the leak:
I think you would generally characterize that they have four or five what I would call lines of effort. The overarching line of effort is the relief well. Before that they have tried the capture devices, piped oil to the top; there were two evolutions of that and then finally the insertion tube is working. The next one is to try and kill the well, as they would say. That's going to be done by inserting a very high pressure of heavy mud to drive the hydrocarbons down so they can seal it. If that does not work, they have two options after that. One is to sever the marine riser pipe and attempt to put a valve in.
They’re not doing that first because when you sever that marine riser pipe you don't know how many hydrocarbons are going to come out and how much oil is being held by the fact that that riser pipe is bent.
After that they could take the lower marine riser package which sits above the blowout preventer and just physically remove it and put a whole new blowout preventer right on top of it. One of those is staged on the DD2 that's drilling the second relief well out there and is ready to go as the backup to the current actions they are trying. So they have a series of events with backup actions behind them, and they’re sequentially trying the ones that involve the least risk in that order.
I was out on the rigs last Thursday. I actually went through -- this was my second trip out there -- I looked at the blowout preventer, was briefed on their plans. They make sense. They’re going in sequence, and they’re dealing with problems as they arise.
[Regarding concurrent operations:] What you have there right now in a radius of 5,000 feet around that well site is 5,000 feet of crumpled riser pump, an upside-down mobile drilling unit, and on the surface anywhere between 12 and 20 ships, at any one particular time, anywhere between 10 and 14 ROVs operating. Some of these things are going to have to be done in sequence because you can’t operate on the same patient at the same time and do three different surgeries.
In fact, there are three fronts. We’ve got the emissions at the bottom of the ocean. We have where the oil is coming to the surface and trying to fight it as far offshore as we can -- you’d rather deal with it there before it even gets close to shore -- and then how you deal when it makes contact with shore. And the three kind of distinct operations require different sets of -- types of capability. And we’re fighting a three-front war basically at once.
If I were to give you an area where I’ve had more conversations with BP than any other, it’s been on the difference between wholesale and retail. BP does wholesale really good as far as massing logistics, moving stuff around, getting it into the warehouses. That last mile of retail, where you get the siting of the oil, you got to get the boom -- you got to coordinate all that, that’s where the formation has got to be tightened up. And I had a conversation with Tony Hayward this weekend on that.
So I would say we have more of a play, need to exert more pressure and are exerting more pressure on the retail end where that boom actually hits the water. We’re trying to deal with the resources there.
We have what we call shore cleanup assist teams, and they’re actually -- they’re made up of a combination of federal, state, and local contractors, BP representatives, because you need almost everybody there to kind of coordinate what’s going on. So it’s a multifunctional team, multi-disciplined team. And they’re staffed by the local federal on-scene coordinator.
I would say on the shore cleanup side, we have more degrees of freedom and more capability and competency we can bring to bear and a greater, wider set of authorities allow us to effect the outcome than on the sea floor.
I think [cleanup] is further away from [BPs'] central business competency. I mean, these guys are drilling for oil. This is an oil spill response. And what has happened, quite frankly, in the last 20 years -- and it’s a phenomenon of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 -- we have created an industry in this country called oil spill response organizations, or OSROs. We actually created the demand for companies who would build oil spill equipment and could be contracted to clean it up.
A lot of the work that’s being done out there has been done by these oil spill response organizations. It was anticipated that that would happen and as a result of the act, there would be a reason for them to capitalize on the market. So we use a lot of folks that are not BP or Coast Guard to do these things. They are contracted under -- BP paying for it -- a paradigm. But then it all has to be coordinated. And that’s where there’s a larger role for us there than there probably is on the seabed.
[Regarding dispersants:] A decision to use dispersants doesn’t do away with the problem. It means we’re willing to accept the effect of the oil in the ocean rather on land. It’s a tradeoff of where the impact of the oil is going to be made. And by dispersing it, it goes into much smaller pieces and can biodegrade rather quickly. And another thing is, regardless of the relative toxicity of any dispersant, the difference in the toxicity between the dispersants and the oil is in order of magnitude.
Okay, first of all, there was an assumption that these blowout preventers were failsafe. We know that’s not true. Okay? I don’t think anybody ever contemplated dealing with the scenario that we have right now where the blowout preventer would fail; you’d have 5,000 feet of riser pipe, and then several leaks in that riser pipe from the residual oil coming out of the blowout preventer that did not close all the way. I think we need to go back and look at our plans to respond and how we’re positioned to do this in the future. It just was not contemplated in the planning scenario.
When the Oil Pollution Act was passed in 1990, it was only four or five years before that we had really moved into deep-sea drilling. And the Oil Pollution Act was aimed at the problem of the day, which were large tankers. And the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 has generally solved that problem.
But all the things that are in place regarding command and control and technology and so forth, like the use of dispersants and in situ burning that were major breakthroughs approved after the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, now are being done on such a large scale that we had never contemplated that at this point we’d have 600,000 gallons of dispersant had been applied on the surface. I don’t think it was ever envisioned when it was first decided let’s try these alternate technologies. So we are in a new era. We’re going to learn something from this and we’re probably going to have to adjust the rules.
When I was testifying before the Senate last week, I made three -- I identified three areas where I thought we might want to look at going forward to see if we could do better.
One of them is the overall inspection regulatory regime surrounding blowout preventers. And maybe we can do a mandatory inspection, a regime that is regulated by somebody -- some independent third party like the American Bureau of Shipping would certificate drilling systems. I think that's an area we need to look at.
The second one is on the Coast Guard side. All of our inspection authorities for drilling units offshore are contained in Title 46 of the U.S. code. I'd like to go back -- as the outgoing commandant of the Coast Guard, I recommend to my successor to take a look at fire prevention standards, how we issue certificates of compliance -- this was a vessel registered in the Marshall Islands -- and make sure that there is no disparity between the standards that we’re meeting under the international standards issued by the Marshall Islands and our certification of that; or maybe actually hands-on inspection rather than just taking the certificate as proof they’re in compliance.
And the third area, the spill response plans that are submitted to the Minerals Management Service as part of the permitting process I think need to be reviewed by the local Coast Guard commanders in terms of these area contingency plans that I mentioned earlier to see that they’re better integrated.
[Regarding deep-water drilling policy:] A couple of things we have done: I’ve asked my staff to take a look at the other regulatory regimes around the country -- around the world and how certain countries treat the regulation and inspection of blowout preventers and drilling systems. The other thing we’re taking a look at is there is an international body very similar to the International Civil Aviation Organization -- it’s called IMO, the International Maritime Organization. We are a signatory to that convention. They establish international standards for a lot of different things including drilling systems.
And we’re going to go back and compare the U.S. domestic inspection regime with the regimes of other countries -- let’s say the Marshall Islands -- and in some cases, compare that to international standards that are out there, and see if there’s any kind of re-leveling that needs to be done.
I’m aware of this anecdotally, so I don't want to say with absolute certainty, but I’m under the impression that Norway actually has a regulatory system for blowout preventers. So we would look at things like that.
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