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Total still evaluating possible action plan for North Sea gas leak

29 March 2012

A spokesman for Total in Paris said a solution to plugging the gas and condensate leak from the Elgin-Franklin field in the North Sea was still being evaluated, according to Reuters. The spokesman said the company had not precisely identified the cause of the incident, and that a decision was some days away.

A photograph of the Elgin PUQ platform taken on March 27
A photograph of the Elgin PUQ platform taken on March 27

The UK Energy Ministry said Total was considering two options to plug the leak: drilling a relief well that would allow the flow of gas to be shut off, an option likely to take six months, or blocking the well with heavy mud.

An immediate concern for the company is whether it should, or can, extinguish the flare burning off excess gas on the Elgin Processing Utilities and Quarters (PUQ) platform. Experts say that if the wind changes, the gas bubbling up from might be ignited by the flare, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

But a spokesman for Total UK said the flare was on a separate platform from the leak, albeit only a short distance away. "The flare is still burning but is not posing a risk. The leak is on the wellhead platform and the flare is on the PUQ platform. There is a gap of 90 metres (300 feet) between the two," he said.

UK government energy minister Charles Hendry said he had been advised by Total that the flare was "well-above" the level of the gas, according to the BBC.

He said: "Clearly, when you have a significant amount of gas escaping, there is a case for trying to burn some of it off to get rid of it rather than leaving it as a hazard elsewhere.”

Hendry said the government was "very comfortable" that Total had been exercising the emergency plan as agreed.

David Hainsworth, health, safety and environment manager for Total UK said he could not put a timescale on the flare being extinguished. He said there had not been time to extinguish it when the Elgin platform was evacuated, as the safety of staff had been the top priority, and it was not possible to shut it down remotely.

He said that some weeks ago Total engineers had decided to pump mud into redundant piping on a gas reservoir which had been plugged about a year ago. This might have caused the escape of gas from the outer casing of the well.

All 238 workers were removed from the Elgin installation and Rowan Viking drilling rig by helicopter on March 25, and a two mile exclusion zone decreed for shipping, and three mile zone for aircraft.

Shell has moved 120 non-essential staff from the Shearwater platform and Hans Deul drilling rig, about four miles from the Elgin. The company later said it was bringing forward plans to carry out maintenance at Shearwater.

Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said: "The gas condensate is expected to disperse naturally and - as the situation currently stands - environmental risks are minimal."

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