Flare goes out at Total's North Sea platform hit by gas leak

31st March 2012, Comments 0 comments

A flare that had threatened to cause an explosion at a North Sea platform leaking flammable gas has gone out, French oil giant Total said on Saturday.

"We can confirm that the flare has been extinguished," spokesman Brian O'Neill told AFP from the company's crisis centre in Aberdeen, 150 miles (240 kilometres) from the offshore Elgin platform evacuated this week.

"It extinguished itself, which is what we expected to happen."

There had been fears that the plume of gas, which continues to leak from the base of the platform at a rate of 200,000 cubic metres per day, could come into contact with the naked flame and ignite, causing a massive explosion.

Total, which has seen around eight billion euros ($10 billion) wiped off its stock value since the last of Elgin's 238 crew were evacuated on Monday, has described the accident as its worst problem in the North Sea in a decade.

O'Neill said a surveillance flight on Friday gave the first indications the flame had gone out, and at 0720 GMT on Saturday the company's boats confirmed that it had not burned all night.

Total is preparing to sink two relief wells to stop the gas leak, which was first spotted on Sunday, in parallel with a plugging operation to pump so-called "heavy mud" into the stricken well at high pressure.

The company is moving two drilling rigs from elsewhere in the North Sea to drill the relief wells.

"Once they're there, we'll have to do preliminary work before we start drilling, such as surveys to assess the seabed," O'Neill said.

"This takes a little time. The preliminary work has started already, but it will be seven to ten days before we are in a position to start drilling."

Total's chief executive Christophe de Margerie said the firm planned to deploy "special firefighters" to help stop the leak.

"We must call in special firefighters. We're waiting for the authorizations," he said on Saturday at an event in Rennes, north-west France, according to Total's official Twitter account.

As for the cause of the accident, he added: "The leak is coming from a natural rock formation, not an exploited reservoir."

Philippe Guys, managing director of the firm's British exploration arm, said on Friday that "at this time there is no evidence of human error".

The last major accident in the North Sea was in 1988, when the Piper Alpha oil platform operated by the US-based Occidental Petroleum exploded, killing 167 people.

Total's rival BP is still recovering from the damage to its reputation and finances caused by an explosion at its Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

© 2012 AFP

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