Leaking Timor Sea oil rig catches fire

SYDNEY, Nov 1 (Reuters) - An oil rig operated by a unit of top Thai energy firm PTTEP in the Timor Sea, which has been leaking for 10 weeks, caught fire on Sunday, officials said.

The West Atlas rig operated by PTTEP Australasia, a unit of PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP) PTTE.BK, started leaking on Aug. 21 and efforts to stop the leak have failed.

PTTEP finally stopped the leak on Sunday, but as it was trying to fill the hole with heavy mud, the West Atlas rig and Montara wellhead platform caught fire, said Australian officials.

All workers were safe and were being evacuated from the rig, more than 200 km (125 miles) off the northwest Australian coast.

“Current operations are focused on reducing the intensity of the fire,” said Australian Resources Minister Martin Ferguson.

“Some of the world’s leading experts are working to fix the leaking well and respond to this latest problem,” he said in a statement.

Ferguson said the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority had been called out to help fight the fire and that Geoscience Australia and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority were on standby.

The leaking rig was due to start commercial operations this month.

The Montara field could be one of the main sources of profit for PTTEP in the second half of this year as many analysts expect higher output from new oil and gas fields to boost its sales.

PTTEP plans to produce about 35,000 barrels of oil per day from the Montara field, which should boost its 2009 petroleum sales to 240,000 bpd.

Montara is the flagship in the exploration and production business for PTTEP and which is involved in about 40 oil and gas exploration and development projects in 14 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The Australian government on Saturday released a report saying birds and marine species were at risk from the oil spill, but it said the full impact could not be immediately determined.

“This spill has been a disaster from the outset,” Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said on Sunday.

“Coupled with the environmental impacts of the oil entering the ocean, the potentially hazardous effects of the dispersants being used and the threat to fisheries both here and in Indonesia, now we have a fire on our hands.” (Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Dean Yates)