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Drill troubles spill across the Atlantic

Douglas Fraser | 18:57 UK time, Wednesday, 26 May 2010

It's not just the Gulf of Mexico that has oil spill problems. A major incident is under way 120 miles east of Shetland, in Norwegian waters.

No spill yet, but there's been a risk for nearly a week in developments officially classified by the country's offshore safety authority as "serious".

A large platform has had 89 workers evacuated, while operator Statoil and its remaining staff struggle to get the well under control.

The problem at the Gullfaks C platform comes from the unpredictable behaviour of gas below the sea-bed.

That's in contrast with the BP oil spill off the Gulf coast of the southern United States, where well pressure has been a key problem, but at least as important has been the much greater depth of water, creating intense pressure on the equipment.

Drilling 'mud'

Under the Norwegian platform, the BOP, or blow-out preventer, is acting as a barrier if the pressure continues to build. But the other barrier, drilling 'mud', has not proved effective in containing the Gullfaks well.

That may have changed on Wednesday morning. Statoil, Norways' state-owned oil company, has been pumping drilling mud into the well since the incident began, in an attempt to reach a point where it caps the pressure.

A spokesman for Statoil, Gisle Johansen, said today that the point has been reached where "loss of mud into the formation has stopped and we do not have to pump additional mud into the well. This is positive information and tells us that the pressure situation in the well is more stable".

However, he said: "We still don't have the necessary safety barriers in place".

The next stage is to cement a plug into the well, said the spokesman. That work has yet to start, and will take several days.

Meanwhile, Statoil has been keen to play down the risk of a blow-out and major leak of oil and gas, saying the chances are "very small".

Trade unions

If it is found that the depth of water and the pressure in the Gulf of Mexico spill has been the main factor in the spill there, then it can leave much of the North Sea industry relieved.

But the offshore industry worldwide is preparing for increased scrutiny. A new Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group has this week been set up within the UK industry. Including industry, regulators and trade unions, it's chaired by Mark McAllister, chief executive of Fairfield Energy.

He's pointed out there hasn't been a blow-out in the North Sea for more than 20 years, but "in light of the recent Gulf of Mexico incident, it is only right that we take a fresh look at our practices in the UK".

That includes the first response to protect workers, the equipment necessary for stockpiling, and questions of insurance cover.

The next frontier in UK waters is west of Shetland, where much deeper waters present a tougher technical challenge.

And with the US having stopped - at least temporarily - new drilling off its shores, there are now competing pressures on the industry.

If and where offshore drilling is allowed, the experience of the Gulf of Mexico spill is expected to push up the safety requirements, and not just under American waters. That increases costs, and may make some wells uneconomic.

But the demand for greater safeguards also presents a combined technical challenge and a big business opportunity for those with established subsea engineering expertise.

And north-east Scotland's got lots of that.

I'm told Aberdeen's finest are already at work on solving BP's nightmare down on the Louisiana bayou.

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