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Explosion, Pollution, Massive Oil Spill Probable: North Sea Gas Leak

Issues with well were detected well before leak occured

- Common Dreams staff

The French energy company Total boasted today that they have discovered the source of the natural gas leak, which is steadily casting a plume of natural gas into the air and a six-mile long 'sheen' in the ocean surrounding the oil and gas platform in the North Sea; however, as fears of a catastrophic explosion increase, current options for plugging the leak carry great risks and may take months to complete.

Aerial shot of Total's Elgin Wellhead Platform in the North Sea off the shore of Scotland. (AP Photo / Greenpeace, Martin Langer) One option is to drill a relief well to stop the release of gas, which could take up to six months.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are now warning that a major oil spill could be triggered at the platform. Such a spill would have "catastrophic consequences for the environment, marine life and sea birds in Shetland, the Faroe Islands and the Norwegian coast," said Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland.

Scientists have also become increasingly concerned about drastic amounts of pollution already caused by the leak. 'Sour gas' is currently leaking into the ocean that contains elements that are poisonous to humans and aquatic life, which could lead to mass animal and plant deaths. Simultaneously, large amounts of methane are bellowing into the atmosphere; methane is one of the more potent greenhouse gases causing climate change.

Additionally, reports are now surfacing that Total suspected something might be wrong with the well weeks ago, adding suspicion of negligence to the list of concerns surrounding the disaster.

"We noticed about three or four weeks ago that there was a change in pressure [in the G4 well] that we weren't entirely happy about," said David Hainsworth, a health safety and environment manager at Total.

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Total Identifies Source of North Sea Gas Leak (Agence France-Presse):

French energy giant Total said Thursday it had identified the source of a gas leak on a North Sea platform which has sparked fears of an explosion and wiped billions of euros off its market value.

Four days after the Elgin platform was hastily evacuated, Total said gas was emerging from a wellhead on the rig after rising 4,000 metres (13,100 feet) up a disused well from below the seabed.

Total said one option it was considering was to plug the well from the top using mud, but that would require a team to get on to the deserted platform which is currently engulfed in a low-lying cloud of gas. [...]

Three options are being considered to stop the leak.

One is to "kill the well" by plugging it from the wellhead on the platform using a large quantity of mud.

The second is to leave the well to "diminish naturally", Total said.

The third option is to drill a relief well. "In the area of the Elgin platform this could take up to six months," the company spokesman said.

* * *

Activists Worry Over North Sea Platform Gas Leak (Associated Press):

Environmental groups warned Thursday they fear an oil spill could be triggered at a North Sea offshore platform that has been leaking highly pressurized gas since the weekend. [...]

"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 need to move before an oil spill becomes part of this leak," said Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland.

He warned that any major spill would have "catastrophic consequences for the environment, marine life and sea birds in Shetland, the Faroe Islands and the Norwegian coast." [...]

"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," said Charlie Kronick, a senior climate adviser at Greenpeace U.K.

"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 said.

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Fears Grow Over Pollution Risk from Leaking North Sea Gas Rig (The Guardian/UK):

Martin Preston, marine pollution specialist and honorary research fellow at the University of Liverpool, said that from an environmental standpoint, both greenhouse gas emissions and local fish deaths were a concern. "The methane release represents a very significant explosion hazard, and of course methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The gas in this field is 'sour gas' – ie it contains hydrogen sulphide which is very poisonous to humans and aquatic life – so localised risks to marine life are likely. The hydrogen sulphide content of the current release is unclear at present. Localised fish kills cannot be ruled out." [...]

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said: "According to Total, if the leak continues at its current flow for six months it will amount to nearly 800,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, adding to the burden of greenhouse gases already going into the atmosphere.

"This incident shows us that if the oil and gas industry can't contain leaks in supposedly less risky places like the North Sea then there's no way they should be allowed to drill in fragile and high risk places like the Arctic."

* * *

Total: Suspected G4 Well Had Issue Weeks Before Leak (Washington Post):

ABERDEEN, Scotland (Dow Jones)--Total SA (TOT) said Thursday that it first suspected something might be wrong with the well believed to be the source of a gas leak at its Elgin North Sea platform weeks before the installation was evacuated.

"We noticed about three or four weeks ago that there was a change in pressure [in the G4 well] that we weren't entirely happy about," said David Hainsworth, a health safety and environment manager at Total.

"There was a concern that there had been a deterioration in one of the annuluses," he said, referring to the space between the drill pipe casing.

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