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Oil giant Total fined £1.1m over biggest ever North Sea gas leak

The company were fined at Aberdeen Sheriff Court after admitting a string of regulation failings.

Gas leak: Total were fined £1.1m at Aberdeen Sheriff Court.
Gas leak: Total were fined £1.1m at Aberdeen Sheriff Court. Total

Oil firm Total has been fined £1.1m after rig workers were put at risk of a major fire and explosion following a gas leak in the North Sea.

The Elgin platform and Rowan Viking jack-up drilling rig were evacuated after gas began spewing into the atmosphere from a ruptured well on the platform in March 2012.

Seven men working closest to the leak on the wellhead platform spotted they were in danger and fled from the area in fear of their lives.

Offshore union RMT has described the fine as a "slap on the wrist" and "wholly inadequate when it comes to tackling the fundamental issues of offshore safety".

Total had been experiencing problems with high pressure gas leaking into wells in the Elgin field since 2001 but had adopted "bleeding-off" procedures to manage the issue.

However, a "sudden uncontrolled release" of gas erupted from the G4 well at 12.30pm on March . Within the first few minutes, an estimated three to four tonnes of high pressure gas and condensate leaked into the air.

Engineers had devised a plan to kill the well due to its "seriously degraded" condition in the weeks leading up to the incident.

The operation was initially deemed a success, however well pressures increased rapidly and began behaving erratically. Gas began spewing from the ruptured well.

It was eventually brought under control after 51 days when specialists were called in from America.

Total appeared at Aberdeen Sheriff Court on Tuesday and admitted a charge under the Offshore Installations and Wells regulations 1996.

The oil firm pled guilty to failing to identify and implement sufficient control measures to reduce the risk of gas leaking during the well kill operation and were fined £1.1m.

Fiscal depute Geoff Main said: "In the hours leading up to the sudden uncontrolled release, control of well G4 was lost with rising pressures which personnel were unable to reduce, despite continual bleeding of the well annuli.

"Approximately 15 minutes before the sudden uncontrolled release, the Elgin Offshore Installation manager decided that control of well G4 had been lost and he began to initiate down manning the Wellhead Platform and Rowan Viking.

"While the G4 release occurred on March 25, 2012, seven men were working on the Wellhead Platform in close proximity to the release and therefore at greatest risk.

"The sudden uncontrolled release released high pressure, flammable gas and condensate on to the wellhead platform, immediately endangering the lives of those seven men on the platform. These seven men ran from the wellhead platform to the Elgin PUQ in fear of their lives.

"The sudden uncontrolled release had the potential to result in a major fire and explosion."

All 238 staff were evacuated from the complex and the nearby drilling rig, the Rowan Viking, amid fears of an explosion.

Concerns were raised over a flare continuing to burn on the tower above the utilities platform for several days.

But it eventually went out by itself and specialist contractors were able to safely fly out to the installation.

The court heard that Total called in the help of well control experts from Houston in Texas.

Specialists travelled out to the platform and killed the well by pumping heavy drilling mud down the well.

The Health and Safety Executive launched an investigation and concluded that casings and or their connections had likely failed causing the gas leak.

Total had miscalculated the pressure of fluid entering the well and the weight of fluid needed to carry out the initial well kill operation.

Defence counsel, Peter Gray QC, said his client had not made a deliberate error and had not demonstrated a wilful disregard for its obligations.

He said: "It was not a failing as a result of any degree of recklessness.

"It was as a result of a genuine error, following anxious consideration by competent and experienced personnel in challenging and complex circumstances."

The court heard that the incident had not created any environmental hazards and the results of the investigation had been shared across the industry.

RMT general secretary, Mick Cash, said: "For a giant global player like Total this fine can be written off as petty cash and a minor inconvenience and does nothing to hold the senior management of the company to real and genuine corporate account.

"RMT is also angry that the findings that led to this judgement are not being shared with us and discussed openly so that real lessons can be learnt to prevent a repetition.

"RMT will continue to fight for safety in the UK offshore industry against the current background of cuts."

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