Monday, April 2, 2012

Oily substance at North Sea gas leak rig: Greenpeace

An oily sheen has spread around a stricken North Sea gas rig, Greenpeace activists on a ship nearby said Monday, but Total insisted it was formed by gas condensate.
Greenpeace's Koenigin Juliana research ship arrived on Monday at the edge of an exclusion zone around the abandoned Elgin platform owned by Total, 150 miles (240 kilometres) off Aberdeen in eastern Scotland.
The French energy giant insists there has been little environmental impact since the gas began leaking from the platform on March 25.
But Christian Bussau, a marine expert from Greenpeace who is on board the ship, said a multi-coloured sheen around the platform was spreading and the group was taking air and water samples.
He said he believed the substance to be oil, though he admitted Greenpeace would not be able to analyse its samples until the ship returned to its base in Germany.
"This is a really big accident," Bussau said from the Koenigin Juliana, which is about three nautical miles from the platform. "Total must immediately start to close the leak, or the pollution won't stop."
Total has readied a Hercules military transport plane carrying dispersant that could be sprayed on the sheen, but said it did not expect it would be necessary to deploy it.
It says the sheen is caused by gas condensate, or gas that has turned to vapour.
"The light condensate poses no significant threat to seabirds or other wildlife," a Total spokeswoman told AFP.
Greenpeace dispatched the Koenigin Juliana from Germany on Saturday.
"Oil companies often withhold information when there are accidents," Bussau said. "We want to get our own picture of the environmental damage from the scene."
Total, which has seen an estimated eight billion euros ($10 billion) wiped off its stock value since the leak was discovered, is awaiting British regulators' advice on whether it is safe to approach the rig.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) told AFP its officials would meet with Total in Aberdeen on Monday, while the energy giant said it was assembling a crew to go on to the platform "in the next couple of days".
Total said the crew would include outside experts from Texas-based firm Wild Well Control. They were among the experts who worked to stem the massive oil spill following an explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Total is preparing to drill two relief wells to stop the gas leak, in parallel with an operation to pump so-called "heavy mud" at high pressure into the stricken well.
The last of Elgin's 238 crew were evacuated on March 25, while Total's Anglo-Dutch rival Shell has also been forced to halt output at its Shearwater platform and Noble Hans Deul rig, four miles away, because of safety concerns.
The last major accident in the North Sea was in 1988, when the Piper Alpha oil platform operated by the US-based Occidental Petroleum exploded, killing 167 people.
Total's British rival BP is still recovering from damage to its reputation and finances caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Russian plane crash kills 31, exposes safety record

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A passenger plane crashed and burst into flames after takeoff in Siberia on Monday, killing 31 people and putting the spotlight on Russia's poor air-safety record before Vladimir Putin's return as president.
Thirteen survivors were pulled from the wreckage but one later died after being rushed by helicopter to hospital in the city of Tyumen, some 1,720 km (1,070 miles) east of Moscow, emergency officials said.
Television footage showed the UTair airlines ATR 72, which had snapped in two, lying in a snowy field with only the tail and rear visible. Emergency workers sifted through the wreckage and cleared away the snow.
An investigative committee said the most likely cause of the crash was a technical malfunction as the 21-year-old twin-engine, turbo-prop plane carried its four crew and 39 passengers on a flight to the oil town of Surgut.
"I went out on to my porch and heard a bang, saw a small flash and smoke came out. It turned, with smoke coming out, started to lose height and came down in the field. If it had turned a bit further, it would have hit us," a local resident, identified only as Alexei, told RIA news agency.
He said he often saw aircraft fly past, and the plane appeared not to be on the usual flight path: "It should have been behind my house but it was in front of it."
The investigative committee said the plane had notched up 35,000 flying hours since going into operation in 1992 and had not had a "serious" technical check since 2010.
Yuri Alekhin, head of the regional branch of the Emergencies Ministry, told Russian television at the scene of the crash that the "black box" flight recorder had been found and contact had been lost with the plane just over three minutes after take-off.
Surgutneftegas, Russia's fourth-largest oil company, said in a statement that it had lost some employees in the crash but did not say how many and did not name them.
The crash was the worst in Russia since a passenger plane slammed into a riverbank near the city of Yaroslavl after takeoff on September 7, 2011, killing 44 people and wiping out the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team.
President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, who is prime minister until he takes over as president on May 7, called for moves to improve Russia's air safety after that crash, including better training and improved conditions on board.
But their opponents on Monday drew attention to the lack of action since then and the fact that Transport Minister Igor Levitan remains in office.
"It's typical that 'the minister of catastrophes' does not receive even a cosmetic reprimand for all the chaos on public transport. They cover for each other," opposition ecologist Yevgenia Chirikova said in a message on her Twitter account.
Putin said last September that airlines should put passengers' safety above commercial considerations and ordered the government to draft proposals for improving condition on planes and at airports, but ignored calls to dismiss Levitan.
Putin, 59, has seen off the biggest opposition protests since he rose to power 12 years ago but faces increasing criticism and is under pressure to do more to tackle chronic problems such as corruption and Russia's poor safety record.
Russia and the former Soviet republics combined for one of the world's worst air-traffic safety records last year, with a total accident rate almost three times the world average, according to the International Air Transport Association.
IATA said in December that global airline safety rates had improved in 2011 but that the rate had risen in Russia and the CIS group of former Soviet republics.
Gunther Matschnigg, IATA senior vice-president for safety, said a key problem in Russia was that pilots and ground technicians were having to adapt to a growing number of a highly sophisticated aircraft.
He said Russian aviation officials and political leaders had accepted that pilot training needed rapid improvement.
UTair has three ATR-72 craft made by the French-Italian manufacturer ATR, according to the Russian airline's website
ATR is an equal partnership between two major European aeronautics players, Alenia Aermacchi, a Finmeccanica company, and EADS.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Gleb Bryanski; editing by Elizabeth Piper)