The gas and oil company Total face a penalty fine of over £1 million following a large oil leak from one of its rigs in the North Sea.
The French company have been found guilty of breaches of safety at its Elgin rig that led to a huge leak back in March 2012. The leak, which was took more than 50 days to control, resulted in the evacuation of almost 240 members of staff from the rig, which is based 150 miles from the Aberdeen coast in the North Sea.
The leak was so bad that an exclusion zone was imposed on both air traffic and sea traffic within a radius of two miles around the rig.
Almost 6,000 tonnes of gas leaked from the rig, making it the worst disaster of its kind to occur in the North Sea. The penalty fine of £1.25 million plus court fees reflected this, as the biggest fine to ever be faced by any North Sea oil company.
The loss of functionality of the Elgin platform, which previously had produced some 3% of the UKs total gas, lasted a year.
The Health and Safety Executive, who were responsible for the prosecution of Total, made it clear that the gas company was lucky to not have a more immediately catastrophic and fatal disaster on their hands, as high winds at the time managed to stop the leaking gas from reaching flames and causing huge, untameable blazes. The majority of the damage was to marine life in the surrounding area, rather than to workers on the rig.
Russell Breen at HSE spoke of the causes of the leak, describing the incident as “foreseeable and entirely preventable.”
The incident occurred while a damaged well was being repaired and attempts were made to close it off. Repairs did not go according to plan and week and a half in to the job, worker described “a sudden and uncontrolled release of gas.”
Mr Breen said that “the Industry must learn from this,” describing the event as “an important reminder of the ever-present hazards with oil and gas production and the need for them to be rigorously managed” and reminding the world (and Total) that “this could have easily led to loss of life.”
Environmental groups were watching closely as the decision to impose a fine of this magnitude was reached, worried that it would be more like the smaller penalties that other oil companies have faced for similar offences.
In 2011, Shell’s Gannet Alpha rig leaked some 200 tonnes of oil into the sea which was, at the time, the worst disaster of its kind for ten years. They were finally charge in November this year but had to pay a fine of £22,500, considered paltry by activists.
Indeed between 2000 and 2012, more than 4,000 leaks were recorded in the North Sea, yet only seven fines were imposed as a result.
Lang Banks, who runs WWF in Scotland, spoke favourably of the decision to land Total with a record fine, saying that “the gas leak at the Elgin platform endangered lives, cost the company millions and added to climate change. It’s therefore good to see a fine that reflects the seriousness of the incident. Hopefully the outcome of this case will send a clear message to the rest of the oil and gas industry to massively improve safety procedures.”
Some commentators, however, have pointed that despite the fine being of a record size, £1.25 million will still not make a large enough dent in Total’s profits.
“How hefty is hefty when a firm is making a million pounds an hour?” asked Jake Molloy of the RMT.
“It would send a pretty powerful message to the industry” he went on, speaking of the release of investigation reports as a further punishment, saying that it would be better for Total to be “held to account publicly, rather than just being allowed to write off its fine in its accounts at the end of the year.”