ABERDEEN, Scotland (Dow Jones)–Total SA‘s (TOT) efforts to stem a natural gas leak on a North Sea platform gathered pace Sunday after an onboard flare that had hampered relief plans finally went out, but the French company still faces weeks, if not months, of challenging and expensive work to end the crisis.
The end of the flare, which finally went out late Friday, has cut one major explosion risk, but some 200,000 cubic meters a day of highly explosive hydrocarbons are still spraying out of the well head platform into the atmosphere and Total’s crisis management team is continuing to work around the clock to solve the problem.
The company’s North Sea headquarters in Aberdeen, Scotland, was abuzz with activity late Sunday, as spill response specialists and Total staffers came and went.
Nearly 240 workers were evacuated a week ago from Total’s Elgin platform, 240 kilometers off the North East Scottish coast, when the gas leak was found. Total had been battling to control a problem well blamed for the leak for weeks when a sudden rush of pressure sent gas and mud spewing out from the drilling deck of the platform.
With the risk of an immediate explosion seemingly averted, attention is now turning to the major operation required to stop the leak.
Specialized crews from Wild Well Control – the company made famous for helping tackle the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Kuwait’s raging oil fires – are expected to board the abandoned platform in “one or two days,” said Total spokesman Andrew Hogg. Once aboard, they will conduct an initial reconnaissance of the vessel before attempting to secure the area so that workers can safely begin a “top kill” operation, where heavy mud is dropped into the problem well in the hope that sufficient downward pressure is exerted to stop the flow of gas.
Total is also progressing a separate plan to drill two relief wells to divert the flowing gas, with drilling rigs already being moved into position, although these could take as long as six months to complete.
Initial relief drilling work is expected to begin around April 8., said Hogg.
Although the top-kill is a quicker way of addressing the immediate issue of the leak, the complex and risky procedure will still likely take “several weeks,” Hogg said.
Total will run its plans past the offshore regulatory branch of Britain’s Health and Safety Executive before it boards the platform. The HSE said it would look at Total’s risk assessment to assist the French company in complying with the law.
“One less risk means we are now more able to get people on board safely. However this is still a very serious situation,” said Total’s Hogg.
The flare was left burning at the top of the rig to burn off gas in the pipes and prevent pressure build-up after the structure was powered down. It was deemed too unsafe to return to the platform while the flame was still burning due to fears that the cloud of gas condensate escaping from the well head platform could ignite. However, a favorable wind direction and the density of the gas condensate cloud meant the gas stayed away from the flame.
National and Scottish government ministers cautioned that it was premature to think that the situation was now close to being resolved.
Energy Minister Charles Hendry Saturday expressed his relief that the flare had finally gone out but said the leak still needed to be addressed.
“The task now is very clear – every effort must be made to locate and stop the gas leak,” said Hendry.
Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochead also cautioned the broader situation would still need to be resolved as quickly as possible.
“So far there has been a minimal impact on the environment and let’s hope that situation doesn’t change,” he said.
Total has said the leak is costing it about $1.5 million a day in loss of income, although that doesn’t include the costs of stopping the leak. The company’s shares fell 6.6% last week.
Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDSB.LN), which Monday partially evacuated its nearby Shearwater platform in the wake of the gas leak, said it would continue to monitor the situation before deciding whether to return staff to its installation to begin a planned maintenance program.
“We will be taking a cautious approach to beginning some of this work when it is safe to do so,” said a Shell spokeswoman.
-By Alexis Flynn and Geraldine Amiel, Dow Jones Newswires