Another Deep Water Deepwater?

For nearly a week, workers have scrambled to stop a gas leak at a drilling platform in the North Sea’s Elgin field. The scene has similarities to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s a similar situation in that it’s not something that can easily be controlled,” said Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist and campaign director with Oceana, an international environmental organization.

Critics have charged that the North Sea gas leak—much like the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010—highlights the dangers associated with drilling into high-pressure and high-temperature oil and gas reservoirs.

Although Paris-based Total—the company operating the leaking rig—has played down the risk of an explosion associated with the leak, the European Union this week began to consider the possibility of applying stricter safety standards to such operations in the wake of the leak.

Savitz said that, like BP’s Macando leak, the Elgin gas leak will require relief wells to be drilled in order to stem the flow of gas. Total officials have said that there is some hope that the well will naturally die out.

Total reports that gas is leaking from a point about 13,200 feet below the seabed and into a previously closed well bore. Workers apparently noticed the problem four weeks ago, but were not forced to evacuate the drilling platform until Sunday after losing control of pressure in the well and spewing flammable gas and condensate into the facility.

Total’s Elgin platform is located about 150 miles off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland. Surveillance flights have reported a sheen around the platform estimated to extend over 1.85 square miles. The sheen is thought to be caused by gas condensate, a petrol-like substance that contains some amount of oil. Because there is also oil in the well, an eventual full-blown oil spill is a concern.

“It’s ultimately going to be a pollutant one way or another,” said Savitz.

An exclusion zone for ships and planes has been set up spanning 2 nautical miles. Total spokesman Jacques Emmanuel Saulnier has termed the situation as serious but stable. The spokesman confirmed the cause of the leak is still being investigated.

Much of the U.K.’s remaining oil is believed to be held in high-pressure, high-temperature, high-risk environments such as the Elgin field. Such North Sea fields have been targeted with specific tax breaks in an effort to encourage development in the area.

Although officials in the oil and gas industry consistently assure that technology is keeping up with safety demands, environmentalists worry that the new age of high-stakes exploration is an invitation to disaster.

At Oceana’s offices, Savitz doesn’t feel that society is prepared for the potential dangers. She doesn’t think we have an adequate plan in place to stem the eventual, and perhaps inevitable, oil and gas leaks.

“We think we do and we hope we do,” she said, “but when it actually happens we cross our fingers and hope that they tap out.”