A Total Disaster? Either way, the price of oil has just gone up.

140 miles from Aberdeen the North Sea sits on the verge of an environmental catastrophe.  A gas leak under the Elgin platform has, in the last few hours, been confirmed as coming from a previously unknown vent disturbed by drilling in the chalk. Along with methane, hydrogen sulphide – a highly toxic gas which can kill all plant and animal life it comes into contact with – is bubbling out into the open sea.   The gas leak can’t be capped for fear of ignition.  No one yet knows what the extent of the damage will run into but we should be worried.  Bella columnist, George Gunn, a former oil worker, gives us his take on things.

The price of oil has just gone up


George Osborne may have blethered and blathered his way through the most reactionary budget we have had the bad luck to endure in recent times and he did mumble something, in his best public school way, about fuel duty and what that meant, although he has no idea of what it meant, but what it did mean is that the South-East of England is beginning to pay something resembling the price of a litre of fuel in Wick.

Two things conspire, in the real world, to undermine this complacency. One is the forthcoming strike by Unite fuel tank drivers who have issues over terms and conditions and safety. These concerns are well founded. 140 miles east of Aberdeen is unfolding an environmental and industrial tragedy. It is called the Elgin oil field and it is operated by Total, nominally a French oil company but who trade under the banner of Total EAP UK (TEP UK). Whatever they call themselves what is occurring in the North Sea is seriously bad news. The oil company Shell agree. They have evacuated personnel from their Shearwater platform which is almost five miles from the Elgin and have got non-essential personnel off the drilling rig Noble Hans Deul, a semi submersible, which is also close by. Total have left nobody on the Elgin platform. This is madness. But it does tell us something.

Just in case you do not know gas is leaking out of the well-head*. There is a sheen of hydro-carbons over the sea. If it ignites and it is likely then we are facing a scenario comparable to the Piper Alpha. This is not scaremongering: this is concern. The sooner we understand that things are not going to be the same forever the sooner we can, as a democracy, as a people, do something about it. Total look as if they have given up. Hence the evacuation of everyone off the platform. So soon? Why is this?

I reckon they have seen the hole BP dug for themselves in the Gulf of Mexico and they want none of that. On the other hand they have a potential disaster of their own 140 miles off Aberdeen. I think we have to look a bit further into the recent past to understand Total this March, 2012. I suggest that they have taken a leaf out of Occidental Oil’s book. The Piper Alpha disaster left Oxy one of the wealthiest companies in the world. Not only did the insurance pay for the new Piper Bravo platform they then sold it for a huge profit. The entire incident raised $1.4 billion in insurance claims and exposed Lloyds as the rotten charade it still is. The oil industry is still rotten and as the Elgin blow out proves it is beginning to unravel.

As down-hole pressure must be relieved one way or another so pressure on the surface economic structure and system must have an outlet and the indicators are that it is collapsing. George Osborne may think that getting soldiers in to do the job of the 3,000 tanker drivers will keep the middle class happy over Easter and that everything will go on as normal but later on he is going to have to come to terms with the fact things cannot go on “as normal”. One reason is that in the world of industrial oil there is no such thing as normal, unless you consider crisis to be normal. The oil industry thrives, makes money, out of crisis. In many way it invites it.

However much cash BP had to fork out because of the blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico it is nothing to the amount of money BP has made since. Total will take the long view. This for an oil company is about two months. They will look at the press and they will see that, in Scotland, The Herald gives more coverage to Rangers than it does to the North Sea, disaster or no disaster. In the Scotsman it is even less. They are more interested in the share price of Total and BP than they are in the environmental health of the North Sea and the lives of the workers on board these installations. This is not the journalism we need.

But things will change. The addiction to hydro-carbons is something Britain has no interest in shaking off. Everything revolves around it. George Osborne is smeared in it from his head to his toe. The Tory party depends on it. The British State is shaped by it. But they try to keep it a secret, ironically. From the Afghan and Iraq wars to the gas leak on the Elgin platform in the North Sea this March there is a black, sticky line of connection. However it pans out, and I pray it does not explode, Total will still make obscene amounts of money. George Osborne will go on pretending everything is going on as normal. Until the London motorway ring-road is choc-a-bloc with cars and 4X4’s out of petrol and diesel everyone will believe him. No amount of soldiers pretending to be tanker drivers will hide that. In Holyrood we have a government that goes into the cupboard every time there is bad news and only comes out when the Sun is shining. They should be telling Total that they have a responsibility to their workers, the North Sea, Scotland and the planet. If we are to become independent we need better governance than this. One solution would be to nationalise the North Sea oil industry. That way all its problems and benefits are our own. Labour attempted something similar in the late 1970’s with BNOC. Then along came Margaret Thatcher.

© George Gunn 2012

* Since George Gunn wrote this article it has been confirmed that the gas leak is not coming from the wellhead, but from a new vent, previously unknown.

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  1. mhairi says:

    Woah, just seen this.

    Does anyone know how this fits with the redraw of coastal waters in 99 – if it was in the water controlled by the UK was there a different management structure n place and were the oversight regulations the same?

    1. Sleekit says:

      The waters are in the “Scottish Territory” but the regualtion is all done by the UK through DECC.

      Looks like new drilling has disturbed this vent and that is the cause.

      They have a few options:

      1) Sit back and hope the pressure reduces… eventually

      2) Bring a drilling rig alongside (Still quite a bit away for safety) and drill into the well from the side and plug it with cement, then create a new well head.

      3) Top Kill of the existing well, but you cant get close because of the risk of explosion and H2S Poisoning your crew.

      My guess is they will try to drill in from another rig using directional drilling from a safe distance.

      The only positive is that its not an oil vent but it should be stressed that this is not bad management or poor performance but bloody bad luck.

      Not too reassuring I know but there it is…

  2. George Gunn says:

    They are waiting for it all to come to a conclusion naturally. But why then had the flare off been left on? Relying on the wind to stay in the same direction is tantamount to believing in Father Christmas. The Energy Minister was on BBC Radio Scotland this morning and it was ovvious to all that he had no idea what he was talking about. It seems to him that this is happening “hundreds of miles away”. It is not. It is in the North Sea. With the greatest respect to “Sleekit” , who knows a thing or two, this incident is not bad luck. It is bad engineering. The North Sea is full of bad engineering. It is also full of good engineering but as the economic scenario pans out I sadlt have to tell you that these things will get more frequent and the “bad luck” is that we have probably heard about none of them. I live with oil workers: Thurso is full of them. They things they tell me would make you shiver. I want the best result from this. I am not convinced that Total and the British Government share this concern. I have known too many many men who are dead because of oil companies.

    1. Sleekit says:

      Thanks for further input George.

      Sorry to hear you knew people that have died in the industry. I’m lucky enough not to.

      Agree about the stories from Offshore Workers regarding some operators, I’ve heard enough that makes you think “Jesus”.

      Hitting an unknown vent is bad luck, maybe kit should be better to adapt, hopefully this will end up with a positive learning.

      Little bit confused by Flare Scenario, are you able to hypothesise reason?

      Also, what do you think the future will hold with more and more of the mature fields being transferred to smaller operators that can work as low cost operators more efficiently?

  3. David Smillie says:

    Good article from George. He’s quite right about the uselessness of the Scottish press. We need more of this kind of coverage and comment to be properly informed.

  4. 808 says:

    Fabulous article, there are few things I admire than the candour of a man who can devote some part of his life to such an industry and then criticize it in lucid political terms. Now it’s been revealed that the leak is actually from the chalk bed, and the gas is “sour” – ie. highly impure (genuine terminology?). I wonder if the the two are connected; the drive to exploit less profitable gas reservoirs implying exploitation of more geologically unstable ones. Seems to me we could be in for a string of these scandals as the North Sea runs dry in the next 20-30 years, especially as peak oil and gas drive up prices, incentivising risk taking.

    The lack of cheerleading for SNP is also refreshing on Bella. The SNP still talks about the north sea oil industry as if it was a net asset to the country, while at the same time touting its enthusiasm for renewable energy. Well that’s easy to do when you preside over a country like Scotland with abundant renewable resources in terms of fresh water, wind, and off shore hydro. But they haven’t grasped the underlying green agenda in relation to climate change, that fossil fuels are truly a legacy technology. Theirs is still very much an opportunist, populist (and pro-oil company) line. It remains to be seen whether Salmond will back renewables as a truly practical and necessary alternative to oil and gas or just as another “Scottish asset”.

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