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Total UK shuts down and evacuates North Sea platform after gas leak

27 March 2012

On March 26 Total UK said production had stopped and all 238 personnel had been evacuated from its Elgin Franklin platform and the nearby Rowan Viking drilling rig by helicopter after detection of a significant gas leak. A cloud of gas was reported to be surrounding the platform, which is located 150 miles (240km) off Aberdeen.

Elgin-Franklin provides some 7% of the UK's oil output and a significant  proportion of the country's natural gas
Elgin-Franklin provides some 7% of the UK's oil output and a significant proportion of the country's natural gas

Exclusion zones have been put in place around the platform, with coastguards ordering shipping keep at least two miles away and aircraft three miles.

Shell has also moved 85 non-essential staff from the Shearwater platform and Hans Deul drilling rig, about four miles from the Elgin, as a precautionary measure.

A slick of gas condensate measuring six nautical miles in length has been reported on the water nearby, and Total has activated its Oil Pollution Emergency Plan.

A shallow water-depth of 93 metres at Total's production site should make it easier to drill a relief well, compared with BP's problems after the 2010 Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which was about 1,500 metres deep.

On March 27, David Hainsworth, health, safety and environment manager for Total E&P UK, told BBC Scotland the situation was stable and there had been no major change overnight.

Hainsworth said all the power was turned off when the platform was evacuated to minimise the risk of igniting an explosion.

He said: "Clearly there is a risk of ignition and a fire. We've taken away all the usual sources of ignition such as electrical power, but yes, there is always a possibility.”

Total is evaluating options to stem the leak, Hainsworth added.

Dr Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at Southampton University, told BBC Scotland that this was not a deepwater drilling rig and platform but it was unusual in that they were drilling down 5km (3.1 miles) into the sea bed.

He said: "It is a very deep well. The gas they are bringing up is what we call sour gas. That gas has a high proportion of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide and that makes it very flammable and quite poisonous.”

"So the big problem they have got is dealing with a very combustible gas - unlike Deepwater Horizon where we were dealing with crude oil which ironically is very difficult to light sometimes."

Dr Boxall said it would be difficult to get close to the leak. "I am guessing they are going to tackle it from beneath the surface to start with," he said. He said the leak would be very difficult to tackle.

"People seven miles away can see a gas cloud coming from the Total rig," said Jake Molloy, the head of the section of the RMT union that represents offshore oil and gas workers.

"The well in question had caused Total some problems for some considerable time ... a decision was taken weeks ago to try to kill the well, but then an incident began to develop over the weekend," he said.

"Engineers have told me that it is almost certain that gas is leaking directly from the reservoir through the pipe casing," he said.

The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has been monitoring the situation and said there was no indication of a risk of significant pollution to the environment.

Peak production capacity for the Elgin/Franklin field is 280,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (around 7% of UK production), 175,000 barrels per day of condensates and 15.5 million cubic metres of gas per day (mcm/d), according to Total.

Oil produced at the facility is exported via the BP-operated Forties Pipeline System to Kinneil in Scotland and gas flows through the SEAL pipeline to Bacton in Norfolk. According to Reuters, gas flow through the Bacton SEAL terminal fell by around 10 (mcm/d) to 7 mcm/d on March 26 after the event.

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