Campaigners have warned that the high pressure gas leak that started at the 'Elgin' North Sea offshore platform last weekend could trigger an oil spill that would be devastating to the environment in the Shetlands, Faroe islands and the Norwegian coast. These warnings have come even as surveillance flights by operator Total SA detected gas-condensate sheen around the platform off the Aberdeen coast that is by now six miles long. Activists are saying that the Elgin incident is yet another proof of the dangers posed by deep-water exploration and extraction.
All the 238 workers have already been evacuated from Elgin. Another operator- Shell- has evacuated non-essential personnel from its nearby rigs. A two nautical mile exclusion zone has been enforced around Elgin, although Total is insisting that there is no threat of explosion.
Fears have been magnified because the Elgin platform is now surrounded by a giant gas cloud; Total says that drilling a relief well- one option to stop the high-pressure leak- can take up to six months. Another option is sending engineers to 'kill' the leak, but Total is hesitant at putting its employees at risk. The company has called in experts from the US, including 'Wild Well Control,' the firm that was involved in BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster- that countries largest- not so long ago.
The exact cause of the accident is still not known, but gas is believed to have started leaking when the Elgin wellhead was being plugged after commercial production of gas was stopped after a decade of service. Oceanographer Dr Simon Boxall told the BBC that it was unusual that Elgin had been drilling 3.1 miles into the seabed. "It is a very deep well. The gas they are 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".
Scottish environment secretary Richard Lochhead tried to play down the incident, adding that "any gas leak on an evacuated offshore installation is, of course, deeply worrying," but environmentalists are concerned. "Elgin is sending methane into the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas, so there is some environmental impact at the moment. There is also oil in that well, and Total needs to move before an oil spill becomes part of this leak," said Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland. Adds Greenpeace UK advisor Charlie Kronick, "The U.K. industry, unions and regulatory authorities say they have the best and tightest safety regime in the world, but this leak proves that for all their efforts it remains unsafe."
"The industry is trying to squeeze out the very last of the Earth's reserves and companies such as Total, BP and Royal Dutch Shell are pushing themselves into exploration that is extremely difficult, costly and risky", he added. "We should accept that we are at the end of the oil and gas age."
Frederic Hauge, an activist and head of 'Bellona'- a Norwegian group monitoring the oil industry- points out that workers on Elgin struggled in vain for 14 hours before they were evacuated. "They saw the sea bubbling with gas under the platform," he said. "This is quite shocking. This situation is only going to get bigger and bigger."
"This is the well from hell," he said. "This problem is out of control."