A looming natural gas disaster off the coast of Scotland prompted the British government to address transparency issues regarding oil and natural gas leaks in its territorial waters. Eight months ago, there were concerns expressed when U.S. supermajor Chevron was accused of withholding information about what turned out to be one of the worst oil spills in the region in decades. North Sea reserves are in decline, suggesting international energy companies are searching in less than secure areas. Yet it seems to have taken a flare burning a few hundred feet above a natural gas cloud to prompt the government to open its books a little more.
French energy company Total estimates that a natural gas leak at the Elgin platform about 150 miles off the coast of Aberdeen is costing about $2.5 million per day. The leak was first reported March 25 by Total and the British Department of Energy and Climate Change issued its first public statement the following day. Roughly 7 million cubic feet of gas has been leaking from the platform each day. Authorities had demarcated a 2-mile exclusion zone around the platform and, for much of last week, officials had expressed concern that a flare burning on the platform could ignite the giant gas cloud near the ocean.
Total was able to get all of the 238 crew members off the platform in less than four hours and the threat of a massive gas explosion extinguished during the weekend along with the flare. British Energy Minister Charles Hendry announced this week that, after speaking with authorities at Total, it was determined that a "great deal of transparency" was needed in how his agency addressed spill data.
Philippe Guys, managing director at Total, expressed remorse in repeated statements, stressing that safety was the top priority. That openness wasn't the case last year, however, when Shell was criticized for its slow response to a leak at its Gannet field about 100 miles off the coast of Aberdeen. Environmental groups accused Shell of keeping spill information "close to its chest" because of its initial silence on the spill. Then, Shell said it wanted to have "confident information" before making public claims. If that had been the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, around 100,000 barrels would've spilled before Shell made any announcement.
Regarding the Elgin incident, Total was able to get a team of engineers out to survey the leak, including a team of so-called Hellfighters, a special breed of Texans groomed to respond to oil rig explosions. Total, it seems, isn't leaving anything to guesswork in its efforts to kill the well. Neither is the DECC, for that matter. Off the coast of New Zealand, however, the agency responding to the stricken cargo vessel Rena issues statements seemingly around the clock. Yet, both Total and the British government have been reasonably on task with the Elgin incident. There's been some concern that dwindling reserves in the North Sea are to blame for the rising number of accidents, though response time is improving. Though it took mistakes, it seems the industry, and the governments involved, are taking a lesson-learned approach to oil and natural gas disasters.
By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com