Total's battle to plug gas leak hit by rough seas

LONDON/PARIS Mon Apr 2, 2012 10:20am EDT

The Elgin platform in the North Sea is seen in this undated photograph received in London on March 30, 2012. REUTERS/Total E&P/Handout

The Elgin platform in the North Sea is seen in this undated photograph received in London on March 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Total E&P/Handout

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LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - Total faced rough seas and heavy winds on Monday as the oil and gas company prepared to send men and machines to battle a leak at its Elgin platform in the North Sea that has spewed gas into the air for over a week.

The French company, which is spending $1 million per day on efforts to plug the leak, plans to move drilling rigs from two nearby fields, fly staff to the platform if it is deemed safe and send two underwater inspection vehicles to check where best to drill relief wells, Total said on Monday.

"Both (inspection) vessels are currently awaiting optimum sea conditions before they can be deployed," Total said, raising concerns that relief operations will be delayed as Met Office forecasts showed even stronger wind levels for Monday afternoon.

The company is expected to fly its own staff to the platform within the next few days, industry sources told Reuters.

If a first visit to the platform is successful, Total plans to fly out more engineers by the end of the week to begin injecting mud into the well to stop the gas leak, the industry sources said.

Workers are expected to wear personal breathing apparatuses and gas detectors to protect them against dangers on the site.

Total was due to meet experts from Britain's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on Monday to discuss the dangers involved. An executive said, meanwhile, Total was not aware of any legal proceeding from UK authorities in relation to the leak.

On March 25 all 238 workers were evacuated from the platform 240 kilometers off the Scottish coast, and a two-mile exclusion zone was set up around the site, while fire-fighting ships remained on standby in case of an explosion.

The union representing staff at the Elgin platform opposes plans to fly a team of crisis engineers to the platform, saying it is too dangerous given the amount of gas that has escaped.

"We think this is a highly dangerous tactic. Even a dropped hammer could ignite the gas. The whole thing would have to executed perfectly," said a union official, who asked not to be identified.

RELIEF WELLS

Total also plans to drill two relief wells to prevent gas from leaking at the top of the platform.

It said it would stop drilling operations a few kilometers away at its Fettercairn and West Franklin fields so that it can use the rigs to drill two relief wells at the leaking platform.

"To maintain the widest possible range of options, other drilling rigs are also being considered," the company said, without specifying from where it could source the additional rigs.

Total has hired a team of international experts to advise it on how to plug the leak, including U.S. firefighting and engineering firm Wild Well Control, which helped tackle BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 and Kuwait's raging oil fires in 1991.

The company estimated its net operational loss of income from the leak at $1.5 million per day but said it was unable to give an overall cost estimate of the impact.

EARLY SIGNS

Total had detected the first signs of trouble at Elgin one month before the leak started as pressure rose in a well, which had been capped a year earlier.

The operator told workers up to a few hours before the evacuation that a leak was impossible, rebuffing concerns raised by rig workers weeks before the incident, a union official said last week.

The company said on Monday it had suspended production at the Elgin well in January 2011 due to pressure problems.

"My experience in the North Sea is that if you scratch beneath the surface, things get quite scary quite quickly," said an oil industry professional with knowledge of North Sea safety systems and procedures.

"There is a worrying backlog of maintenance on safety-critical equipment, including release valves, pipelines and sub-sea fail-safe devices," he said.

A marine expert onboard a Greenpeace ship, which has arrived near the exclusion zone, said he could see evidence of some environmental pollution.

"Our boat is in an area of extensive oil pollution, and we see yellowish chemicals swimming in the oil spill," Christian Bussau told Reuters by satellite phone from the Koningin Juliana ship some 5 km from the Elgin platform.

Greenpeace activists said they had collected their first samples of water and air, which will be analyzed in Germany.

A different marine pollution specialist at the University of Liverpool said danger posed by the gas leak on sea birds and marine plants and animals was small due to the low quantity of hydrocarbons contained within the condensates that have formed a slick on the water.

"If things continue as they are, I do not think that the marine pollution risks are high. The condensate slick is reported to be slight and diminishing," said Dr. Martin Preston.

(Additional reporting by Oleg Vukmanovic in Aberdeen, Julius Sandmann in Berlin, Marion Douet and Valerie Parent in Paris; Editing by Jane Baird)

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