The battle to stop a dangerous gas leak from the Elgin Well head platform off the coast of Scotland in the North Sea has been going on for a week. All personnel have been evacuated from the platform, which is operated by Total SA, a French oil and gas producer. The incident brings to the forefront the ever-increasing risk involved in the exploitation of high pressure and temperature oil reservoirs.
These types of fields are believed to contain a significant proportion of the U.K.’s shrinking oil and gas reserves. At the time of the gas leak incident the Elgin/Franklin field was producing close to ten percent of the UK gas production. This has made them important enough to have received special tax breaks from the government to encourage the development of the fields. However it is a documented fact that Total’s Elgin/Franklin field is at the extreme of the spectrum of high pressure and high temperature gas and oil fields. The development of this field has faced major challenges, all the way from the discovery up until this present incident.
According to a statement released by Total, the gas is leaking from a point some 4,000 meters below the sea bed into a well bore that had previously been shut down. It is likely to be gas found in a layer of rock above the main reservoir on the Elgin field. The problem was initially discovered four weeks ago. Total workers attempted to contain the problem, but were eventually forced to evacuate the Elgin platform after they lost control of pressure in the well and flammable gas and condensate spewed into the facility. The gas leak at the Elgin Well head platform occurred within well 22/30c-G4 during operations to plug and decommission the well. All employees were safely evacuated from the platform and no injuries were reported.
According to David Hainsworth, health, safety and environment manager at Total U.K., the company has been actively managing these issues for a long time. “What we’ve been doing over the past two or three years is plugging and abandoning those old wells,” which have had their casings compromised, he said. The well that is now leaking was shut down 12 months ago on the suspicion that it had failed, “but we hadn’t got round to the final plugging and abandonment exercise as we have just been monitoring the well,” Hainsworth said. There is nothing to suggest this job was done inadequately prior to the leak, he said.
Analysts said that stricter inspections of operators of high pressure and high temperature fields are likely. The Elgin field is expected to be shut down for the rest of 2012 even if the leak is swiftly plugged. This as stringent inspections of the other wells will probably be done to prevent further incidents. Tighter restrictions on these fields could affect the U.K. energy supply in a serious way. The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimated in 2009 that between 12% and 15% of the total number of U.K. offshore oil and gas discoveries and prospects are of the high pressure, high temperature variety.
The industry body Oil and Gas U.K. estimates that between 14 billion and 24 billion barrels equivalent of oil and gas still remain in U.K. territorial waters. Even recovering the only a portion of this estimate will require substantial advances in the exploitation of high pressure, high temperature, and other types of more complex fields, it said in its 2011 economic report.
Stricter safety rules on offshore drilling are expected due to the Elgin gas leak.
Animation from a Taiwanese company illustrates French energy company Total’s gas leak from its North Sea Elgin platform
Interview Tim Haidar on BBC News
In this live interview on BBC News, Oil & Gas IQ Editor Tim Haidar speaks with presenter Huw Edwards about the possible dangers associated with the sour gas leak on Total’s Elgin platform in the North Sea. In the course of the interview, Tim talks about how the evolving problem might have come to pass and what solutions are on the table to stop the leak.
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