North Sea gas leak: ‘Hellfighters’ fly out to rig

FRENCH oil giant Total is hoping to send a crack team of well control “hellfighters” on to its stricken Elgin platform either today or tomorrow to assess the best way of tackling the uncontrolled gas leak on the installation.

Experts from the Aberdeen office of Texas-based specialist company Wild Well Control are expected to be flown to the abandoned installation, 150 miles offshore, with key Total personnel, to carry out a reconnaissance operation before finalising plans to quell the leak which is costing the company almost £1 million a day in lost production.

Specialists at Wild Well Control are veterans of the Deep-water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and it was one of three companies contracted by Kuwait Oil to regain control of its raging well fires during the Gulf war in 1991.

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A Total spokeswoman said yesterday that it planned to send a “small team” of specialists from Wild Well control onto the platform “in the next couple of days” – once it was confirmed that the operation could be safely mounted.

She said it would be a brief “reconnaissance operation”.

“The first access back on to the platform would be to assess the situation and help confirm plans for the well-kill intervention,” she added.

“Once the platform is accessed, advanced preparations for controlling the well can proceed.

“Total has identified and is sourcing the necessary support vessels required to facilitate the operation.

“Two suitable vessels have been chartered, one boat and one rig. Each of the vessels identified has special dynamic positioning capability, making them most suitable for the operation planned.”

Total spokesman Andrew Hogg added: “Once the conditions are safe, we will take a helicopter out to the Elgin platform.

“We will have some people from Wild Well Control and some people from Total who know the Elgin platform well.”

The Health and Safety Executive has been consulted about the proposed reconnaissance mission.

A spokeswoman for HSE said: “HSE is in constant dialogue with the company and is scrutinising its risk assessments to help inform Total’s decision about returning to the platform, in the light of Total’s statutory responsibility to satisfactorily manage the risks to their staff and contractors involved in bringing the gas release under control. The company has prepared risk assessments for landing a helicopter on the platform and sending a team to carry out observations at the site of the gas release.”

She added: “HSE’s role in the risk-assessment is not to give permission for Total to put people aboard the installation – that responsibility lies with Total. ”

Total bosses yesterday revealed that the gas leak, first discovered more than a week ago, is costing the company an estimated £940,000 a day in lost production.

The company is also drawing up plans to drill two relief wells – should that become necessary – at a potential cost of between £94m and £125m.

Patrick de la Chevardiere, Total’s chief financial officer, said: “The group is committed to mobilising all technical, human and financial means to resolve these issues as quickly as possible.”