A platform in the North Sea has been evacuated following the discovery of an underwater leak of flammable gas. French company Total, which operates the Elgin PUQ platform said in a statement that it is taking all possible measures to try to identify the source and cause of the leak and bring it under control. Dutch oil company Shell, who operates two rigs within four nautical miles of Elgin PUQ has removed “non essential” workers from their rigs, while the coastguard has established a two mile air and sea exclusion zone around the platform, which sits around 150 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland.
Shortly after the leak was discovered on Sunday, the Elgin PUQ (Process, Utility and Quarters) platform shut down operations to reduce the chances of the gas igniting. A six mile long sheen of two to 23 tonnes of gas condensate has been discovered as the leak creates a massive cloud of gas. The condensate is a natural gas byproduct of the drilling process and the UK’s Energy Ministry has stated that the ecological impact is far lower than that of an oil leak, while Total has said that it is likely the gas condensate will simply evaporate in the coming weeks. Safety concerns at present center around the flammability of the gas should it reach other North Sea platforms and ignite, which could cause catastrophic devastation.
The BBC has reported that while Elgin PUQ is not a deepwater rig, it does drill to unusual depths in the sea bed. Dr. Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at Southampton University told the BBC that “the gas [Total] is bringing up is what we call sour gas, that gas has a high proportion of hydrogen sulphide 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.”
In the meantime, Total is consulting on methods to stop the flow of gas. David Hainsworth, Total’s Health, Safety and Environment manager told the AP the company was looking at drilling a relief well to stop the leak, or pouring very heavy mud into the well. “The best-case scenario is that the gas in this area is not very productive and it dies off in the coming days and weeks,” Hainsworth said. If not, the process of drilling a relief well could reportedly take up to six months. While Total and the UK Energy Ministry attempt to dampen environmental concerns, the BBC has reported the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is calling for “complete transparency” from Total, and RSPB Scotland‘s director reinforced “We urgently need to know exactly what environmental impacts the leaking substances could have.”