Facts Garbled As U.S. Tries To Take Charge Of Spill

National Incident Commander Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen talks to reporters after briefing members of the House and Senate on the Gulf Coast oil spill in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center June 17, 2010 in Washington, DC.
National Incident Commander Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen talks to reporters after briefing members of the House and Senate on the Gulf Coast oil spill in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center June 17, 2010 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The chief government spokesperson on the oil spill, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, often speaks with great authority. Trouble is, he's often wrong.

The head of the federal oil-spill response announced in a press conference Tuesday that a ship called the Development Driller II has now bored down 9,000 feet below the sea floor in its efforts to create a relief well. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said the drilling ship should be able to tap into the ruptured well in three to four weeks -- that would be mid-July -- a month ahead of schedule.

Unfortunately, none of these statements appears to be true.

National Incident Commander Thad Allen has trouble keeping his facts straight. He comes across great on TV. He's poised, polished, authoritative in his Coast Guard uniform. But ever since the federal government told BP it was no longer welcome at the official news conferences, the admiral has had to stand on his own answering technical questions about BP's operations. This carries the symbolism that the government is in charge. But as a result, facts often end up garbled.

Thursday's briefing was a painful example. It ended up being an exercise in correcting the errors in Allen's opening statement.

The headline sounded pretty good. Allen said a ship called Development Driller II was proceeding apace in its efforts to drill a relief well:

"And they are 9,000 feet below the sea floor right now and starting to close in on the, on the well bore itself. We anticipate over the next three to four weeks they will close in, and be able to tap into the well itself."

If BP was indeed poised to tap into the well itself in 3 to 4 weeks that would be a month sooner than the government has been saying. When reporter Jim Polson asked Allen to clarify, he backpedaled. First he offered a tangled description of how the drill is going to approach the damaged well nearly horizontally and then turn and go straight down.

"So they're going to be very close to the well over the next couple of weeks, and the last 1,000 feet and then drilling through the casing are what becomes very, very tricky and has to be done very, very carefully and precisely," Allen said.

Polson asked for clarification: "So the close to the well is this month, actually intercepting it is still August?"

"Correct," Allen said.

Or maybe sooner, he added. No promises.

Backtracking To Right Errors

The timing of this maneuver wasn't the only point of confusion. Allen gave the wrong name of the ship that's drilling the first relief well. That's understandable, since the ships working on the relief wells are called Development Driller II and Development Driller III. But when asked to clarify which ship was which, he repeated his error. Finally, it seems someone whispered in his ear to set him set him straight.

"The first driller on scene was development driller 3, now is at a depth of 9,967 feet. Development driller 2, the second driller on scene, is now at a depth of 4,560 feet below the subsurface. And I apologize for confusing you and me."

You may have noticed that buried in that correction, Allen actually made another correction. Contrary to what he said at the beginning of the news conference, the main relief well wasn't just 9,000 feet into the rock, it was almost 10,000 feet into the rock -- closer to its destination of about 13,000 feet below the sea floor.

And Allen erred elsewhere in the news conference. He said a ship that recently started collecting oil is connected to the blow out preventer's "kill line" when in fact he later corrected himself and said it has tapped into the very similar "choke line" -- just like it says in the BP plans.

Kristen Hayes from Reuters asked for another clarification.

"You said earlier that, that the BP's increase of capacity would be up to 60,000 to 80,000 barrels by the end of July. I thought BP's plan said they planned to have that by mid-July. Is there a delay we don't know about?"

"No quite frankly I didn't have the chart in front of me, but it is July and it's mid-July. I probably misspoke there," Allen said.

Hurt By A Lack Of Technical Expertise

Friday's news conference went better. And it may seem harsh to pick on the likable, retired Coast Guard admiral.

But Prof. Paul Argenti, an expert in crisis management at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, says the national incident commander's frequent technical flubs do real damage to the administration's credibility.

Argenti says on the plus side, Adm. Allen has strong leadership qualities. Also, it is a good idea during a crisis to have a single spokesman, he says.

"But the perfect person for this job would be someone who has the technical expertise. Not an admiral who obviously doesn't know what he's talking about in this situation," Argenti says. "It's actually a really poor choice from my perspective."

And in the inevitable fog of a crisis, Adm. Allen is often contributing to the confusion, rather than helping to sort it all out. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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