By Sybille de La Hamaide and Oleg Vukmanovic, Reuters
PARIS/LONDON–French oil major Total dismissed fears on Wednesday of a blast at its Elgin North Sea platform, even though explosive natural gas is bubbling up less than 100 meters from a flare left burning when workers had to evacuate the site. Despite the company’s assurances, Total shares came under pressure from speculators, although some analysts said the gas leak off the Scottish coast did not yet appear to be as serious as the oil leak that caused BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, the world’s worst marine oil spill. However, one energy industry consultant said the platform could become “an explosion waiting to happen” if the gas continued to pour from the leak for some time. Total said on Wednesday that the flare, which normally burns to regulate gas pressure at safe levels, had not been shut down when the platform was evacuated on Sunday. A Total UK spokesman in Aberdeen said the flare was on a separate platform from the leak, albeit only a short distance away. “The flare is still burning but is not posing a risk. The leak is on the wellhead platform and the flare is on the Processing, Utilities and Quarters platform. There is a gap of 90 meters (300 feet) between the two,” he said. A spokesman for Total in Paris said a solution to block the leak was still being evaluated and it was a “a question of days.” “We have not precisely identified the cause of the incident.” The firm warned on Tuesday it could take six months to halt the flow of gas, and analysts’ opinions were divided on how serious the leak might be. Unwelcome News Industry consultant John Shanks said the stakes were potentially high and the offshore industry was closely following developments. “The news this morning that the flare is still burning on the platform is thus unwelcome,” said Shanks, who works at RiserTec, a specialist engineering consultancy based in the Scottish city of Aberdeen.
“Under normal conditions, the deeper the leak, the more difficult remedial work will be. However, if gas continues to leak at a steady or increased rate over a sustained period of time, the platform could become an explosion waiting to happen.”