Coast Guard Chief Adm. Allen: Containing Oil Spill Will Take 90 Days ‘If We’re Lucky’
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen sought to rebut criticism that the U.S. military is not providing enough resources in response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"There's been a lot of talk in the press about what we do, when we do it," Allen said this morning at the Navy League's annual convention at National Harbor, Md. "From the outset, the Department of Defense has been involved," he said. "Let me debunk any rumors to the contrary."
Allen spent the weekend monitoring the situation from Venice, La. The oil spill was the result of an April 20 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico involving a Transocean drilling RigDeepwater Horizon. The Horizon was drilling on behalf of BP at Mississippi Canyon Block 252, about 52 miles southeast of Venice.
The rig burned for two and a half days. When it sank, it landed about 1,500 feet from an oil wellhead 5,000 feet deep on the floor of the gulf. The scene is like nothing that's ever been encountered before, Allen said.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon have supported the Coast Guard with additional personnel and other resources, Allen said. Coast Guard engineers are working with BP to build stopgap solutions to contain the oil spill and are drafting contingency plans to manage maritime traffic in the area once the slick moves closer to major ports.
It will take months to fix this, he said. "We have a wellhead sitting on the floor of the ocean 5,000 feet deep. Drilling pipes go down another 18,000 feet," he said. Complicating the picture are 5,000 feet of riser pipe — long tubes made of metal or plastic that are used to carry oil — that are compressed into an area only 1,500 feet long. Coast Guard engineers spent two to three days surveying the area with remotely piloted underwater vehicles, Allen said. It turned out things were worse than anyone thought. "As we surveyed the riser pipe we found three other leaks," he said.
"Some things are inartful. That's the way the situation is," he said.
During the past 24 hours, the Coast Guard has attempted something that's never been tried before, Allen said. Engineers built a pipe that will be submerged 5,000 feet so it can put dispersants at the source of the leak. Typically, these chemical dispersants are used at the surface, he said.
It looks as if it could help disperse the oil before it rises to the surface, Allen said. “We'll do some more water sampling testing. If it works we'll try to go full speed to try to control the source of the oil at the leaks.”
That said, this will not be enough to plug the oil gush. “We're also moving to create cofferdams that can be put in place down over the leakage to collect the oil and pipe it to the surface,” said Allen. “We did that successfully during Hurricane Katrina but it was only in 200 to 300 feet of water. We're doing this at 5,000 feet and it's never been done before.” A cofferdam is a welded steel enclosure that allows water to be displaced by air for the purpose of creating a dry work environment. It is commonly used for oil rig construction and repair. “You can imagine the engineering that is required for the valves, fitting and piping to take the product to the surface,” Allen said.
“We're hoping to put down the first cofferdam around May 9 or 10,” he said. Ultimately the solution is going to be to drill a relief well parallel to the existing well, go down 18,000 feet, relieve the pressure and then cap the existing well. “That will take 90 days if we're lucky,” said Allen. In the meantime the Coast Guard is trying to manage the oil that is on the surface through mechanical skimmers, aerial delivery dispersants, and in-situ burning.
The slick is now sitting 9 miles off the most sensitive marshland in Louisiana. It will stay there a couple of days, Allen said. Of concern is that the oil is floating right between the fairways into the ports. That could potentially affect traffic in and out of the ports of New Orleans, Gulfport, Pascagoula, Biloxi and Mobile. “If the spill moves into those areas we have to set up a protocol for transfers,” Allen said. That means ships would have to stop at decontamination or cleaning stations.
The plan is to establish a so-called “maritime transportation recovery unit,” a crisis-response organization that was created after Katrina to help ports cope with disruptions, survey the areas and manage traffic flow. A similar process was followed to reopen Haiti’s main seaport port Port-au-Prince, Allen said.
Allen is overseeing the crisis as he approaches retirement on May 25. He told the Navy League audience that he is looking forward to May 26, so he can more openly air his views on U.S. policy regarding the Arctic. He said the United States needs more icebreaking ships and that the debate over the nation's role in patrolling Arctic waters is not over and, in fact, "has not even started," Allen said.