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North Sea Gas Well Still Leaking

Total’s Elgin Project Reveals the Dangers of Pursuing ‘Extreme Energy’

Photo by Flickr user crawfish headTotal's Elgin drilling platform (not pictured here) is one of over 570 oil and gas rigs in the North Sea. The
North Sea was the scene of the world's worst offshore rig disaster, the Piper Alpha explosion, which
killed 167 people in 1988.

A natural gas leak from one of the world’s most treacherous underwater oil and gas fields continues unabated in the North Sea, raising worries about what would happen if the massive cloud of gas were to ignite and concerns about how the spewing methane can worsen climate change.

The leak of flammable gas was discovered last Sunday, March 25 during operations to kill a well and quickly prompted the evacuation of all 238 workers aboard the Elgin drilling platform about 250 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland. Surveillance flights have detected a sheen around the platform estimated to extend over about 2 square miles.

The leak began after pressure rose in a capped and abandoned well. It has been sending more than 7 million cubic feet of natural gas into the air per day, creating a potentially explosive gas cloud around the drilling platform. A flare lit by company employees during the evacuation to burn off excess gas went out on its own on Saturday, reducing the threat of explosion.

The North Sea was the scene of the world's worst offshore rig disaster, the Piper Alpha explosion, which killed 167 people in 1988.

The Elgin platform is owned by the French oil and gas company Total. Company officials say the leak could take six months to fix because of the huge pressure produced by the well. Environmental experts say that, if not brought under control, the well may end up spewing greenhouse gases equal in impact to the rate of the two biggest US coal-fired plants — or more than the entire annual greenhouse gas emissions of Norway.

At first, Total officials hoped the leak would run dry as the pressure in the reservoir depleted. But then they discovered that the leak was just a mile from the gas field’s main reservoir, one of the world's deepest, which means there may be more gas feeding the leak than originally believed.

The gas industry and its backers say that burning natural gas to generate electricity is preferable to using coal since natural gas burns far cleaner than coal. But experts like Bob Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea at Cornell University have pointed out that this argument fails to account for the highly destructive impact of natural gas, or methane, when it leaks directly (ie unburned) into the environment. Unburned methane traps about 20 times more heat than does carbon dioxide, though it breaks down more quickly.

There are other risks, too. Since the start of the leak, Total has played down the possibility of an explosion. But plans to send in a helicopter of well-control experts to assess the situation have prompted objections from union officials, who say that the danger is so great that even a dropped hammer could ignite the cloud.

The Elgin incident — like the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 — reveals the increased risks of fossil fuel extraction as the oil and gas industry pursue what has been called “extreme energy.” Tapping diminishing supplies of oil and gas is becoming more difficult and more environmentally costly as companies try to exploit reserves that are further out of reach.  

The Gulf spill became such a disaster partly because the well was at depths where only machines can go. When the oil started spewing into the ocean, workers had to resort to robots to see what was going on. BP’s oil well in the Gulf had repeated problems before the explosion that left 11 workers dead and triggered the biggest spill in decades. And yet, in the lead-up to that catastrophe BP had bragged in its literature that in drilling so deep underwater it was pushing the limits of science and setting new records.

There are striking parallels to the current situation in the North Sea. Paris-based Total described development of the Elgin well as an "unprecedented technical challenge” and the company’s website describes the innovations the company needed to develop in order to drill the underwater gas field. Pressures in the area are quadruple the average in the North Sea.

In 2009, Total reported to British regulators that as drilling increased in the area, the gas reservoirs and rock formations were becoming more unstable and some experts have said that drilling may have contributed to three earthquakes in the area in 2007 and 2008.

Companies are on the brink of drilling in environments, such as near the Arctic, where emergency experts say a disaster would be nearly impossible to control because of the harsh environment. And the Elgin leak came in the same week that the UK oil and gas industry announced it had begun exploration in the deep waters of the North Atlantic, west of the Shetland Isles.

The North Sea incident also raises broader questions about the long-term consequences of oil and gas drilling. Even if companies safely extract the resource, they must also ensure that the wells are properly sealed when they leave. But it’s unclear whether governments have the capacity to keep track of the growing number of abandoned wells.

In the case of the Elgin incident, the leak is emerging from a wellhead more than 13,000 feet beneath the seabed that was “plugged” a year ago. When a well is no longer profitable or when production no longer covers operating costs, it is “plugged” and abandoned. Investigators now say that the method used by the industry to plug unprofitable wells is outdated and insufficient.

The leaking gas well in the North Sea is just one well gone bad. It becomes more worrisome when placed in the context of the natural gas rush underway around the world.

In Pennsylvania, for example, hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells remain unmapped and uninspected because state regulators lost track of them. Meanwhile, state regulators say that the Marcellus region, which holds shale gas stretching from West Virginia to New York, is likely to see 50,000 new wells drilled in the next two decades.
Do these states really have the ability to ensure that these wells are tracked properly over the long run? Do they have the staff and budgets to regularly check back on the abandoned wells to make sure their caps are in place and they don’t start leaking like the Elgin well?

Unfortunately, we may not know the answer until disaster strikes.

Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly is a Philadelphia-based lawyer and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Legal Intelligencer.

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