Nightmare in the North Sea

2 Apr 2012

At 12:15 on March 25th an incident occurred at the Elgin-Franklin offshore platform complex situated approximately 240km east of Aberdeen. It is estimated that a total 200,000 cubic meters of gas per day, is spreading into the atmosphere and directly impacting 4.8 km2 of the marine environment. According to Total they are currently unable to assess the exact quantity of gas which is leaking into the environment, they have stated that the size of the sheen is reducing.

The cloud of hot gas which reaches temperatures of 190°C around the Elgin platform is explosive in and around the zone. It is within this explosive zone that the emergency team will have to intervene to inject the well with mud to try to cut off the gas. No responsible employer would ever take such a high risk with their workers lives. Even if the depth of water from the well head is only 93 meters it could take up to 6 months to drill relief wells in extremely dangerous situation of explosive gas. Maybe an option could be to sit back and do nothing as has been done before, since 1990 methane gas has continued to leak into the North Sea from a drilling exploration expedition that went wrong at bloc 22/4b. The industry and the British authorities concluded that sealing the well could result in uncontrolled release from new leakage paths in the fragile geologic formation.

Total has sent in emergency Oil spill Response (OSRL) fleet however the equivalent for a gas leak does not exist. Total and the UK authorities should never have authorised such high risk exploitation without the appropriate human and technical resources to limit the impacts of this underwater time boom.

According to information available prior to the incident published on Total’s internet site the wells exploited at the Graben field, where the Elgin-Franklin platforms are situated, are the world’s largest High-Pressure / High-Temperature development. The reservoirs are situated more than 5,000 meters below the surface. Due to the great complexity of the geological formation and due to risks related to high pressures, Total considered the Elgin-Franklin deeply-buried reservoirs to be an engineering first, an unrivalled feat and patted themselves on the back for demonstrating their state-of art expertise in the field. They clearly state that they were aware of a serious risk of damage not only to the geological formation but also a risk of oil and gas eruptions. It seems that their predictions were warranted as the geological formation situated around 1,000 meters above the well, which had been out of production for 12 months, was damaged and caused a massive gas eruption.

The Elgin platform and the adjoining drilling rig Rowan Viking were shut down on the 25th and all personnel were evacuated. According to the classification society Det Norske Veritas (DNV) the drilling rig Rowan Viking was under a Marshall Island flag of convenience however other sources state that it could be a Panama flag another flag of convenience. Robin des Bois has been raising their flag on the risks related to the owners of vessels and drilling rigs hiding behind flags of convenience in international waters for years.
Total claims that the biodiversity in the region is not at risk however the “sour gas” contains hydrogen sulphide and condensate a petrol substance which is highly toxic for aquatic life and seabirds such as Razorbills and Puffins which migrate through the region to breeding grounds in Scotland. Marine mammals such as harbour porpoises but also plankton and benthic fauna in the zone could be impacted. Even if Total should be congratulated for their rapid response in evacuating the personal, it is certain that the wildlife cannot be evacuated from the zone.

Following the Deepwater Horizon accident the Contracting Parties of the OSPAR Commission, working towards protecting and conserving the North East Atlantic, adopted a recommendation 2010/18 which reaffirms their commitment to take all possible steps to eliminate pollution from oil and gas activities. However, following recent assessments of the industry many Contracting Parties to the Commission claim that the industry is robust and that new measures to prevent environmental impacts when drilling in extreme conditions would not provide any added value to the Commission. Robin des Bois believes that the offshore industry is a high risk industry and that even under the best conditions accidents could occur not to mention the case of high risk operations such as the Elgin-Franklin offshore complex. There is always room and need for improvement.

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