North Sea flare 'of no immediate concern' to gas leak


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Operators of an offshore platform which is leaking gas have said there is "no immediate concern" about a flare still alight on it.

All 238 workers were taken off Total's Elgin PUQ platform, about 150 miles (241km) off the coast of Aberdeen in the North Sea, when the leak was discovered on Sunday.

A spokesman for the company said tonight that the wind is blowing the gas plume eastwards, in the opposite direction of the flare.

He said: "There is no immediate concern about any ignition because of the distance between the gas and the flare. There is also a prevailing easterly wind, taking the plume away from the flare."

It could take as long as six months to drill a relief well to stop the release of gas, according to the oil firm.

An exclusion zone of two nautical miles (2.3 miles) has been set up around Elgin, with ships and aircraft ordered to stay away from the area.

A large sheen on the water is present near the platform, estimated to extend over 4.8 square kilometres (1.85 square miles) and measures between two and 20 tonnes in volume.

In a statement, Total said the situation is "currently stable".

It said: "We continue to take all possible measures to confirm the source and cause of the leak and to bring it under control. A further oil spill response (OSRL) surveillance flight left this morning at 8am to review the situation. Initial reports from OSRL indicate that the gas cloud is visible and heading east.

"A sheen is visible on the surface of the sea but our surveillance data indicates that the area it covers remains unchanged. Seawater samples have been taken and sent to a specialist laboratory for analysis."

The company also said firefighting vessels are on location in the field as a "precautionary measure".

The remotely operated Allseas Highland Fortress support vessel is on standby.

The statement said: "We have mobilised specialists from within the Total Group in key operational areas including reservoir engineering, drilling and well control.

"The precise cause of the gas leak is still being investigated and our efforts continue to focus on bringing it under control."

The news that a flare is still burning on the platform emerged last night.

David Hainsworth, health, safety and environment manager for Total, told BBC Newsnight Scotland: "We know 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."

A coastguard spokesman said flares on offshore platforms are commonly used to burn excess hydrocarbon gases that the rig does not use or capture.

Total said it continues to work closely with the Secretary of State's Representative, the Health and Safety Executive, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Marine Scotland and the coastguard, as well as other operators in the area.

Shell has reduced its workforce on two offshore sites close to the Total platform as a precaution. Around 85 staff have been taken off the company's Shearwater platform and the nearby Noble Hans Deul drilling rig, leaving a workforce of 117.

Total also said preliminary assessments indicate that leak has made no significant impact on the environment.

The Scottish Government has said it is monitoring developments.

Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said: "As the situation currently stands, impact on the environment, which is the Scottish Government's area of responsibility, is minimal."

Offshore union RMT welcomed the quick evacuation of the platform but warned there could still be serious consequences.

RMT offshore organiser Jake Molloy said: "This is an unprecedented situation and we really are in the realms of the unknown but the urgent need now is to find a way of stopping the flow of gas."

UK Energy Minister Charles Hendry told BBC Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme he has been told the flare can be shut down remotely if there is a problem.

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. So there has to be a decision made on the balance between safe operation and flaring off the gas that can be flared off and closing down the full platform."

Mr Lochhead added: "This is an abandoned platform hundred of miles out at sea. It's a very serious situation and of course we can't go out and see it for ourselves, so we need the company to put all the relevant information into the public domain and have absolute transparency."