Total: Blast Risk Low on Platform

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 @ 01:03 PM gHale

Explosive natural gas is pouring from a leak at Total’s Elgin North Sea platform just over 100 yards from a flare workers left burning as they fled the rig, Total said Wednesday.

Total dismissed the blast risk on the platform, which was evacuated on Sunday, but that didn’t stop others from saying there was, indeed, a risk.

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The flare was on a separate platform from the leak, albeit only a short distance away, a Total UK spokesman said.

“The flare is still burning but is not posing a risk. The leak is on the wellhead platform and the flare is on the Processing, Utilities and Quarters platform. There is a gap of 90 meters (300 feet) between the two,” he said.

Total did say Wednesday workers evacuated the Elgin platform so quickly there was no time to put out the flare, which normally burns to regulate gas pressure at safe levels.

David Hainsworth, a health, safety and environment manager at Total, said the priority had been the safety of the 238 staff of the platform, which lies 240 km (150 miles) east of Aberdeen off Scotland’s east coast.

Hainsworth said the flare was still firing. “We don’t believe it has been reduced in size.” He could not say how long it would take to extinguish the flame, and whether that would be “an hour, or 24 hours or two days” — or even longer.

The British government said the flame still alight as part of the safety system triggered during the evacuation to burn off excess gas but acknowledged the serious risk.

“At the moment wind is taking the gas cloud away from the flame and weather conditions are forecast to remain stable for the next few days,” said a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. “We hope that the pressure will be such that the flame will naturally go out by itself, but Total is not taking that for granted.”

Industry consultant John Shanks said the stakes were high for the offshore industry. “The news this morning that the flare is still burning on the platform is thus unwelcome,” said Shanks, who works at RiserTec, a specialist engineering consultancy based in Aberdeen.

“Under normal conditions, the deeper the leak, the more difficult remedial work will be. However, if gas continues to leak at a steady or increased rate over a sustained period of time, the platform could become an explosion waiting to happen.”

A spokesman for Total in Paris said a solution to plugging the leak was still under evaluation and it was “a question of days. We have not precisely identified the cause of the incident,” he said.

Total said Tuesday it could take six months to halt the flow of gas in an accident that has thrown a spotlight on the safety record of energy production in the British sector of the North Sea, compared with that of neighboring Norway.

The UK sector recorded 155 cases of hydrocarbon releases in 2010-2011, compared with only eight leaks in 2010 alone in the Norwegian sector.

“Obviously the UK has more rigs in our sector of the North Sea compared with Norway, but like for like we’re still seeing many more incidents,” said one energy union official who requested anonymity. “This is the type of thing we’re seeing more and more, and as a union we’re getting sick of it.”

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