An offshore drilling platform owned by the French firm Total is continuing to spew large amounts of natural gas into the surrounding sea and air, nearly a week after the leak started.
The 238 people who worked on the platform off the east coast of Scotland were evacuated as soon as the leak started. As they left, the workers turned off the electrical power to reduce the chance of a spark igniting the gas, but they did not extinguish a flare that continues to burn atop a tower high above the rig.
The flare is designed to harmlessly burn off natural gas that is released during the process of oil drilling. The gas is channeled through pipes to the flame. But gas is now escaping in an uncontrolled way, creating the potential for a huge explosion.
Simon Boxall of Britain’s National Oceanography Center says gas dissipates quickly in the open air, but expresses concern gas getting trapped inside rooms within the huge drilling platform itself, which is stationed more than 200 kilometers offshore.
"The concern about the rig blowing is that it has the potential for opening up some of the other wells in the area, because the rig actually serves five well heads, not just the one that has become damaged," he says.
The environmental impact of such an explosion would be huge if oil were released from several wells, but, Boxall adds, the impact of the gas leak alone is localized and short-term.
The rig owner, Total, which declined to provide an interview for this report, says the gas leak is not coming from the main well but a small underground pocket.
According to Boxall, although the company is doing all it can for now, because it remains too dangerous to send workers to the platform, there is considerable uncertainty about how much gas that pocket might contain.
“[It] could exhaust quite quickly, [but] the big word there is ‘could,’" he says. "And that ‘could’ could be days, it could be months, it could be years."
Total is preparing to plug the leak and has backup plans to drill one or two new shafts to remove the gas safely if plugging efforts fail. All preparations could take six months or more.
A steadfast reminder
For environmental activists, even though this incident isn't yet particularly serious, it serves as a reminder of the dangers of offshore drilling.
Charlie Kronick, senior climate advisor to Greenpeace UK, says those dangers will become more serious as companies seek oil and gas reserves in increasingly remote northern waters.
“Even in the UK, which has been widely held up as having the Gold Standard for offshore operations, these kinds of accidents happen consistently and regularly," he says. "As you get into more and more extreme environments, these kinds of accidents are going to continue to happen, and they’re going to happen more often because of those extreme environments.”
The leak has caused an 8 percent drop in the value of Total’s stock, and a slight increase in the price of oil.
Experts say shutting down the platform and reducing operations at others nearby is counteracting the increase in global supply from the resumption of Libya’s oil exports.