Friday, April 6, 2012

Gas Well Blowout in the North Sea - Small Slick on April 4

The out-of-control well owned by French company Total in the central North Sea's Elgin field is still spewing natural gas into the air.  The good news is a crew was able to visit the rig yesterday, raising hopes that a top-kill can be conducted by pumping mud into the well from the rig itself, which would stop this blowout a lot faster than Plan B - drilling a relief well to perform a bottom-kill.  Also encouraging: the rate of gas flow seems to be decreasing.

We noted a small slick at this site on a radar satellite image taken March 27.  Another image, taken on April 4, also shows a somewhat smaller slick (see image below).  This is probably caused by natural-gas condensate, a volatile and toxic hydrocarbon liquid that evaporates relatively quickly.  We don't see any reason to expect this incident to morph into a significant oil spill.

But this is yet another close call for the global oil industry since the disastrous Gulf blowout in 2010.  If this well had been tapping a high-pressure oil reservoir, like most of the new deepwater wells being drilled around the world, the outcome could have been a BP / Deepwater Horizon repeat. Ugh.  We're not ready to see that mess again any time soon.

Radar satellite image showing small slick at North Sea blowout site, taken on April 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm local time. Envisat ASAR image courtesy European Space Agency. (When are we going to launch a radar satellite here in the US?)


  1. Greenpeace shined UV (I think?) light at the well in order to show up the greenhouse-gas pollution (mostly methane) leaking into the atmosphere. But the highlighting & description weren't clear -- or weren't reported clearly. Are there any satellite shots/services that can show this cloud? I mean, this is 7 million cubic feet of one of the most potent (short-term) greenhouse gases in the world. But since it isn't making a gooey slick on the ocean, there's little to photograph & it's barely making the world news anymore. Would love some kind of shot(s) that really show what's happening day by day.

  2. Harry - excellent question that I asked some friends at NASA a week ago (haven't heard back yet). The only orbiting systems I'm aware of that we have launched so far to measure methane have been passive, indirectly detecting methane by measuring the absorption of reflected sunlight at specific wavelengths. It's hard to tell where in the atmosphere the methane is - is it near the ground, or at a very high altitude? - and the signal to noise ratio is low, so the sensor has to measure over a broad area (i.e., low spatial resolution) to collect useful data. This is OK for measuring country-wide methane emissions but not detailed enough to see a point source, even a big point source like the Elgin blowout.

    The Germans and French are collaborating on a satellite mission called MERLIN that will operate an active, LiDAR (laser) system to measure methane directly, but that sensor won't be launched until 2014 ( Hopefully the Elgin leak will be killed by then! But as long as we're drilling, there will be other leaks to study.