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Oil major Total fined more than £1m over 2012 North Sea leak

23 December 2015

On December 17, French oil and gas multinational Total was fined £1.125m for safety breaches that led to a potentially catastrophic leak at its Elgin platform in the North Sea. After a  Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecution, the company pleaded guilty at Aberdeen sheriff court admitting that the gas leak had occurred due to the company “miscalculating a plan designed to kill an unstable gas well on the platform”.

Elgin B & Rowan Viking in 2013 - Image: Total
Elgin B & Rowan Viking in 2013 - Image: Total

The Elgin field gas leak in March 2012 led to the evacuation of 238 staff from the main platform about 150 miles off Aberdeen and of workers from two adjacent platforms. A two-mile shipping and three-mile aircraft exclusion zone was imposed around the leak site and it took 51 days for the leak to be brought under control.

The HSE estimated that two tonnes of gas and condensate per hour were being released and at one point, as much as 7 million cubic feet of natural gas per day were spewing into the environment, the largest recent leak in the North Sea.

A disaster was only averted because winds kept the plume of gas away from the rig’s flare stack. The platform, which accounted for 3% of total UK gas production, was closed for nearly a year after the leak.

The release  occurred from within a well that was in the process of being plugged and abandoned by the Rowan Viking jackup drilling rig. An investigation after the incident put the likely cause down to a rupture in the well casing caused by both ongoing work and corrosion and fatigue of the casing.

The investigation said the rupture was above the then newly installed cement plug and allowed gas from an untapped gas source above the main reservoir to flow into the well bore.

Rig workers had been trying to close off a well in March after it suffered a parts failure in February. But they had progressively lost control of the well until, 10 days into the repair, “there was a sudden and uncontrolled release of gas and condensate, which created a real risk of fire or explosion on the platform”.

The gas leak was only stopped after a specialist team from Texas-based Wild Well Control was flown in to kill the well using a double  ‘Top Kill’ and ‘Bottom Kill’ methodology.

The ‘Top Kill’ involved pumping heavy drilling fluids down the well bore to counterbalance the force of the gas pushing up. This work was carried out by the semisubmersible drilling rig West Phoenix.

The ‘Bottom Kill’ was carried out by the Sedco 714 drilling rig, and involved drilling a relief well into the side of the gas source to extract some of gas in a controlled manner.

The gas leak was plugged on the 16th May 2012, 51 days after the initial blowout, with production restarting on the 9th March 2013. According to Total’s financial results, the leak cost the company over £83 million (€123m) in lost production revenue.

Russell Breen, the HSE’s operations manager, said: “This incident was foreseeable and entirely preventable. There were a number of failures on the part of Total, which contributed to the blowout.

“Industry must learn from this, it is an important reminder of the ever-present hazards with oil and gas production and the need for them to be rigorously managed. This could have easily led to loss of life.”

The fine is much larger than the £22,500 awarded against Shell by Aberdeen sheriff court in November after 200 tonnes of oil leaked from a pipeline at its Gannet Alpha platform in 2011.


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