27 Mar 2012

Flare still burning at gas leak rig in North Sea

The flare on the Elgin gas platform in the North Sea is still burning, its operator Total confirmed to Channel 4 News, increasing the likelihood that the gas leak may ignite.

David Hainsworth, health, safety and environment manager at Total Exploration and Production UK Ltd, told Channel 4 News: “We have an on-going leak that we have to stop. It is not a disaster, no-one has been injured, the environmental consequences are very low, but clearly we have to stop this leak.”

Mr Hainsworth added: “The gas is mainly methane, it is very flammable. The flare is still alight on the main production platform. However, the wind is blowing the gas plume in the opposite direction, away from this flare.

“We know that the weather forecast is such that the wind direction remains the same for the following five to six days, and we’re evaluating options to extinguish this flare.”

But Jake Malloy, offshore organiser for the RMT union in Aberdeen, warned: “If the gas cloud somehow finds an ignition source we could be looking at complete destruction.”

No lives are currently at risk as the platform and neighbouring installations were evacuated. But if the gas cloud around Elgin were to ignite it would likely destroy the platform. That could seriously hamper efforts to stop the leak, which could take up to six months to bring under control.

The Coastguard ordered ships to stay at least two miles away from the rig and Shell UK removed 120 non-essential staff from the company’s Shearwater platform and nearby Noble Hans Deul drilling rig. The Shell platforms are about four nautical miles from the Elgin rig.

Total recruited engineers involved in BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill while it considers drilling a relief well which would take up to six months. Total is also considering a quicker option involving a platform intervention to kill the well.

Graphic showing the evacuation of rig workers

The leak happened during work to plug and abandon the well, which was no longer producing gas, the UK Energy & Climate Change Ministry said in a statement.

Remote monitoring revealed that gas continued to be released. A sheen was observed on the water’s surface near the installations, believed to be gas condensate, a petrol-like substance that typically disperses naturally, the ministry said.

Total were sending a ship carrying a robotic submarine to investigate what went wrong with the gas well beneath the platform. However, any personnel heading to the vicinity of the platform are taking huge risks.

“You wouldn’t want to be going anywhere near a huge gas leak like that, basically this sort of situation is unheard of in the North Sea,” an industry source who asked not to be named told Channel 4 News.

According to Total, however, until these investigations have been carried out the company will not know the exact cause of the leak and how deal with it.

Total's pledge on safety at Elgin
Studies conducted by our specialists pinpointed potential risks related to the platforms, and purpose-designed solutions were deployed to reduce and manage them. This emphasis on safety led to a total separation of the quarters and processing areas with fire and blast-proof walls installed between the two. Some 33,000 inspection points throughout the installations are overseen by a central system. Its data are transmitted onshore by satellite for analysis by support teams. In addition, several training programmes, which included the use of sophisticated crisis simulators, were organised for everyone working on the platform. Read more from Total's website

Exclusion zone

Coastguards ordered ships to stay at least two miles away and aircraft are excluded from approaching within three miles. A sheen, thought to be gas condensate, can be seen on the water as a direct consequence of the gas leak. The sheen usually evaporates naturally, Total said. Technical teams investigating the leak on Tuesday declined to provide details.

While the UK energy ministry said the environmental impact of gas condensate leaks is substantially lower than from oil spills, Shell considers the evacuation to be a prudent precautionary measure.

Both of Shell’s rigs are about 225 km (138 miles) east of Aberdeen. Drilling on Shell’s Noble Hans Deul rig is suspended, while output from Shearwater is not affected.

The Elgin/Franklin field can produce 280,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, which includes 175,000 barrels of condensate and 15.5 million cubic metres of gas (mcm/d). The oil is exported via the BP-operated Forties Pipeline System to Kinneil in Scotland while the gas flows through the SEAL pipeline to Bacton in Norfolk.

A spokesperson at the Department of Energy and Climate Change said there is no significant risk of environmental pollution.