Two blowouts on Elgin in 5 years

It’s nearly five years since Total screwed up badly on their G4 well on  the Elgin A wellhead platform and nearly blew the complex apart. Back then they allowed a shitload (8,000m3/hr) of highly flammable hydrocarbon gas to spew onto the Elgin Wellhead Platform, and just under the drill floor of the jack-up drilling rig, Rowan Viking.

Total got everyone (238 men) off the complex by helicopter (219 of them in under 4 hours from the moment the well blew out).  All the while a naked flame burned in the flare stack about 100m away from (and above) the escaping gas.  The wind direction that day was what avoided a catastrophe.  Have a look at the photo on the cover of the HSE’s report.  HSE Report on Elgin Blowout – redacted . The flare stack is the derrick with the kink at the top. 

Total never once used the technical term for such an event – blowout.  Not even while the Sheriff was fining them £1,125 million pounds in Aberdeen 4 years after the event.  But even in court the true extent of Total’s culpability was not exposed by the HSE’s prosecution.  

And just when I was beginning to think that Total’s disinformation, aided and abetted by the HSE’s softly softly approach, was going to succeed in burying the near catastrophe, without Total’s mistakes being fully exposed to the scrutiny of the offshore workforce, or any lessons having been learnt or widely understood throughout the industry, what happens?

Total screw up again.  This time on the Elgin B wellhead platform on January 19 this year (2017). The B is connected to the A via a bridge.

Another blowout?  Yes!  This time an underground blowout. And suddenly Total and the HSE are  in the news again.

Responding to press interest, Total, true to form, avoided making any mention of a “blowout”.  This time it was “some difficulties” and they had the gall to tell the press that, “At all times the well was under control at the surface and there was no loss of containment,” And then, maybe because they think we’re all as dim as the journalists who act as their PR, they added that there was a “leak” (?) and talked about an “unexpected flow about 4 km below the seabed”, and admitted that “wireline measurements carried out inside the drill string indicate some flow exists within the well which means part of the well may need to be plugged and abandoned.”

That’ll be an “underground blowout” then.  Pound to a penny!

The HSE are remaining tight lipped about what the incident entailed. They claimed to be “aware of an incident and making preliminary inquiries.”  Don’t hold your breath!  They took 4 years to investigate the more serious 2012 blowout and have no intention of ever publishing their report HSE Report on Elgin Blowout – redacted into that near catastrophe.

Why is all this important?

Because blowouts are often catastrophic and result in major loss of life. Only good luck, the direction of the wind, avoided a major disaster on Elgin/Rowan Viking in 2012. Blowouts can only occur if a serious mistake is made by the well operator/driller (and much more commonly when multiple mistakes are made). Only transparency can allow the lessons to be learnt and a repeat avoided.  Next time Total, or some other operator unaware of the lessons of Elgin, allows a well to blow out, and lady luck doesn’t lend a hand, it will be offshore oil workers who die. And it will be their families ashore who will suffer for the rest of their lives.

Author: Neil Rothnie

I'm a retired (2016) mud engineer. I worked offshore pretty much my whole working life - half on the UK - half on the Norwegian side. I was on the Rowan Norway on Ekofisk when Total were using her sister rig Rowan Viking to try and kill the G4 well on the Elgin Wellhead Platform, lost control and allowed it to blow out.

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