Environment

North Sea gas leak 'from hell' enters third day

28.03.12 @ 10:07

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - A North Sea platform, owned by French oil giant Total, has been leaking gas off the coast of Scotland for the past three days.

  • Hauge: 'This is truly the well from hell' (Photo: Harald Pettersen / StatoilHydro)

All 238 personnel have been evacuated from the Elgin platform, which is located 240 km off Aberdeen, fearing an explosion from a sheen of gas condensate - a light hydrocarbon liquid-from-gas - floating on the water's surface.

Power on the platform has been switched off and extraction has been stopped on the nearby Franklin and West Franklin gas fields. Non-essential workers on a nearby platform owned by rival company Shell have also been evacuated.

There is disagreement on how big the Elgin sheen actually is.

Britain's energy minister Charles Hendry on Tuesday (27 March) told Reuters that "the size of the sheen is one-sixteenth of the size of an Olympic swimming pool."

But the BBC reports it could weigh up to 23 tonnes, while the UK has imposed a 4.8-km air and a 2-nautical-mile sea exclusion zone around the platform.

Gas in the water affects the buoyancy of ships as seawater pressure begins to change, so that rescue vessels attempting to approach the rig would sink, according to a representative of RMT-OILC, an offshore workers union.

People who have observed the scene at first hand said the sea water looks as if it is boiling - an indication that gas is still coming up from beneath the rig, the union delegate added.

For its part, Total says it cannot confirm if the sheen is growing or shrinking.

Total chief, David Hainsworth, said the leak might be coming from an outer casing of a well drilled into mud on the sea floor.

The firm added it could take up to six months to drill a relief well to solve the problem. A second, more risky, option would be to send engineers to "kill" the leak. A third, even less likely scenario, would be that the leak dies down of its own accord.

For his part, Frederic Hauge, the head of the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian-based environmental NGO, said: "If no plugging is achieved, this leak is likely to continue for 10-12 years. This is truly the well from hell."

Elgin and Franklin are two high pressure/high temperature gas and condensate fields in the Central Graben Area of the North Sea. Aside from gas, Elgin also produced 60,000 barrels per day (bpd) of light crude oil.

Documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper last year showed that more than 100 potentially lethal oil and gas spills took place on North Sea rigs owned by Shell and Total between 2009 and 2010.

The Elgin gas leak is a reminder of BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which at the time led to calls for tighter EU regulation of offshore drilling safety standards.

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