FRENCH energy giant Total plans to start drilling two relief wells within ten days as it moves to tackle the potentially catastrophic gas leak at its Elgin platform in the North Sea.
The company has also begun making plans to send a specialist team onto the stricken platform to “kill” the well at the centre of the uncontrolled lease of 200,000 cubic metres of gas a day, using high pressure drilling mud – a process known as “dynamic killing”.
However, any operation involving the deployment of personnel to the abandoned platform will only be possible once there is no threat of the explosive gas cloud, still shrouding the platform, finding an ignition source and exploding.
Yesterday, as Philippe Guys, the company’s managing director in the UK, announced plans for the two-pronged attack on the rogue well, Total also released the first image showing the cloud of flammable gas still clearly escaping from below the main area of the satellite wellhead platform.
Mr Guys, who expressed his profound regret at the gas release on the Elgin complex, explained that Total had decided to tackle the leak on two fronts.
The quickest, but also potentially the most dangerous option, will be to send a team of specialist well control experts onto the platform once the conditions are judged to safe enough to allow such an operation to be mounted.
The second is to drill two relief wells down to the leaking rock formation, 4000 metres below the seabed – an operation which is expected to take a minimum of six months to complete. Two drilling rigs, the semi submersible Sedco 714 and the jack-up rig Rowan Gorilla 5, have already been contracted to carry out the drilling operation. Military personnel could also be involved.
Plans are also being drawn up to extinguish the still burning flare on the main processing platform by either water bombing from the air or using the hoses of firefighting vessels.
Mr Guys explained: “With respect to stopping the leak, we have launched two main actions which we are progressing in parallel. The first is to carry out the well kill operations using a floating support. The second is to drill two relief wells and, to that end, we have suspended operations on two of our drilling rigs in order to make them available for work on the relief wells. We have mobilised a strong team of internal and external experts and a number of specialised support vessels.”
A detailed analysis, he said, was being carried out of the seabed to pinpoint the best areas in which to drill the two relief wells. The drilling operation could begin in a “week to ten days.”
He continued: “The quickest way we can intervene on the platform depends on how safely we can re-board the platform and how safely we can access and be close to the well and we will be assessing that in the next few days .
“We don’t want to put at risk anybody and send people on board if we are not sure that we can send them safely. That is going to take the next few days.”
Hugh Shaw, the secretary of states at the Department of Transport’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention – who has powers to intervene and take charge of major marine incidents – told the press conference in Aberdeen that he was content to continue to give “tacit approval” to Total’s ongoing plans to quell the gas leak.
He said he was “satisfied” with the progress being made.
Mr Shaw said: “We are looking at whether it would safe to take aircraft in there and douse the flame itself. We’ve got fire-fighting vessels on scene with the capability, where it’s deemed safe, to bring them in closer to the platform and possibly using their equipment.”
Later, he told The Scotsman: “The condensate sheen is evaporating rapidly so there isn’t a major concern from that point of view and the gas cloud itself – what is left of that – is dispersing quickly as well.
“I am obviously worried about putting anyone in if I think there is any risk to their safety and that’s why we are taking things in a timely manner. The gas cloud could naturally decay itself. That’s perhaps not likely to happen but it could because we still can’t fully the understand the nature of the problem we are dealing with.”
Mr Shaw added: “The wind has got up considerably in comparison to what it was and that is giving us a bit more leeway. It is shifting what gas is coming up away from the platform a lot quicker and it is perhaps giving us a better opportunity now to consider getting people on board. There will be meetings between Total and the Health & Safety Executive over the next couple of days to look at the risks.”
Mr Shaw stressed: “We are not putting all our eggs in one basket. There are number of strategies being looked at. I want them all to be available to me without any delay if we decide to go for a particular one and if we think the weather is suitable.”
Richard Lochhead, the Scottish environment secretary, emphasised the need for “absolute transparency” from both Total and the UK government over the gas leak at the Elgin platform.
He said: “I spoke to Total UK managing director Philippe Guys last night, while this afternoon I have had further discussions with UK energy minister Charles Hendry. I’m pleased more information about the incident is being made available to the public – this must continue.
“The Scottish Government is continuing to monitor the situation very closely. It has been confirmed by Total that this incident involves gas condensate leaking from the platform, which will evaporate into the atmosphere. As such, the current environmental risk continues to be minimal.”
Mr Lochhead added: “However, we cannot be complacent, and Marine Scotland is continually assessing the situation and scenario planning for all eventualities.”
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
CHARLES Hendry, the UK Energy Minister, yesterday pledged that the North Sea oil and gas industry will share any lessons to be learned from the unfolding gas leak on Total’s Elgin platform.
He told a press conference in Aberdeen that he was “satisfied” with the way in which the energy giant had responded to the emergency.
The minister continued: “It is too early to say what lessons can be learned from this, but part of the process of our health and safety approach which we use in the UK is in the process of constant improvement.
“And where anything can be identified which can lead to the industry improving its practices that is an integral part of our process and we would expect that to happen as result of this. But it is too early to be specific at this stage.