THE SEA IS BOILING WITH ESCAPED GAS; EVACUATION LEAK SPARKS RIG SHUTDOWN.
A TEAM of Texan troubleshooters were last night heading to Scotland to prevent a major gas blast in the North Sea.
A giant oil installation was completely sealed off and abandoned after being evacuated following the leak at the weekend.
The shutdown and evacuation is unprecedented in the history of oil and gas exploration off Scotland.
The firm running the operation have drafted in a team of Texan "Hellfighters" in a bid to prevent a disaster akin to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the US.
Nineteen oil workers who stayed on the Total-owned Elgin platform were airlifted off yesterday.
A two-mile air and sea exclusion zone was imposed around the Elgin and the connected Rowan Viking drilling rig 150 miles off Aberdeen.
Rescued personnel said yesterday the sea was "boiling and bubbling" with escaping gas, indicating a subsea leak under the Elgin.
Last night, Total had called in a Texan team to cap the well and contain the leak.
In 1988, late US oil well firefighter Red Adair helped quell the Piper Alpha platform inferno, which killed 167 men.
Last night, Total were giving few details.
A spokesman said: "We are mobilising experts from elsewhere in the Total Group to offer additional assistance and help us deal with the incident.
"At this stage, the precise cause of the leak remains unclear.
"Although this is a serious situation, nobody has been injured and everyone is now transferred to a place of safety. "There is no immediate risk to any personnel."
A union leader compared the situation to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 men.
The Deepwater Horizon sank after an explosion on the rig caused by a blowout. It sparked a fireball visible from 35 miles away and created the world's worst accidental oil spill.
The current drama centres on part of the rig known as the Christmas tree - valves, spools and fittings used for an oil well.
The specific section of the "tree" affected is the annulus - a void between the drilling section and the casing around it, which exists in case there is a need to pump fluid around the well. Jake Molloy, regional organiser of the RMT union, who represent offshore workers, got first-hand accounts yesterday from men who had been flown ashore.
He said: "It looks like they've got something they can't control - can't manage.
"I've been told G4 is the name of the well, and gas continues to leak from the annulus at the surface, which is where you get this boiling effect, it's condensate.
"Trying to kill it is going to be extremely difficult and technical, which is why there's nobody left onboard. I'm told there are specialists coming from Texas. Unlike Piper Alpha, it's a well problem, as opposed to process and production. But the potential for ignition and explosion is still very real."
He added: "The only thing worse than the situation right now is complete obliteration of the rig.
"Completely clearing the installation is unprecedented. I am not aware of a complete closedown in the North Sea.
"From what I've been told, the standby vessel which circles the installation had seen gas on the sea surface.
"Apparently the sea was 'boiling' with gas below the rig, which suggests a subsea problem, rather than a problem on the installation."
He added: "Total have, at least, to be commended for the rapid response they put in place.
"But Total have said little or nothing since. We get all the rhetoric coming from the industry about openness and transparency.
"Everybody was critical of Shell with the Gannet Alpha oil leak, and here we've got Total sitting on it again."
Last night, Total confirmed there had been "little further development" surrounding the incident.
A spokesman said: "The gas leak at the Elgin wellhead platform remains ongoing and we are taking all possible measures to try to identify the source and cause of the leak and to bring it under control.
"The situation is being monitored by standby vessels in the area."
The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change said there was no evidence of any oil leak.
A vapour cloud of gas around the platform was expected to disperse.
Sunday (March 25)
12.15pm Total Exploration & Production UK dealing with a gas leak on Elgin production, utilities and quarters (PUQ) platform 150 miles off Aberdeen.
12.30pm Coastguards in Aberdeen alerted and assume co-ordination role for the evacuation of the Elgin-Franklin platforms and Rowan Viking drilling rig in Central Graben area.
1pm: Grampian Police told of potentially serious situation. All 238 staff on the platform accounted for - and no injuries.
1-2pm Helicopters rescue more than 200 non-essential personnel.
2.30-2.45pm Workers watching Old Firm match told to go immediately to their muster stations - told it is not a drill.
4.45pm Helicopters and the Ocean Ness standby vessel had safely taken off all workers on the Rowan Viking and non-scheduled staff on Elgin.
12am Decision made to abandon Elgin platform and remove last 19 aboard in a bid to deal with the unfolding emergency.
2.30am Coastguards look at possibility of lifting them from Ocean Ness but in the end helicopter takes them off.
3.28am Monday The 19 staff arrive in Aberdeen.
7am Reports of sheen on the water near installation.
10am Total say probe continuing to determine the cause of the gas leak. Oil Pollution Emergency Plan activated and relevant authorities notified.
Noon Coastguards impose two-mile exclusion zone around the Elgin platform.
12.45pm After mid-morning flyover, UK Department of Energy say no evidence of any oil leak.
DRAMA Total evacuated the Elgin platform as exclusion zone, above was set up. Below, Deepwater Horizon disaster