A Vast Cloud of Fear; Infra-Red Camera Shows Extent of Explosive Gas Leak in North Sea

Article excerpt

Byline: Lucy Osborne

IT looks like a bizarre piece of 1960s pop art - or perhaps a highlycoloured graphic from an old-style computer game.

But in reality, this neon-bright image of the North Sea is a chilling illustration of just how large the potentially explosive gas cloud spewing from the Elgin platform has become.

The infra-red picture, which was taken using a special camera by environmental campaigners, lays bare the extent of the leak's impact on the atmosphere.

The photograph was released by the Greenpeace activists who have been assessing the potential dangers of the situation since Monday.

They say the bright pink spots visible in the image show the natural - and non-toxic - hydrogen gases being emitted by the platform.

Meanwhile, the darker purple areas depict the dangerous portion of the gas cloud - which consists mainly of methane.

The midwave-infrared camera image, taken from outside the security distance of three nautical miles, uses light tones to show heat and dark tones to indicate cold.

Christian Bussau, chief scientist and ocean expert at Greenpeace, insist they found evidence of pollution and that there was 'oil on the water surface' and a 'chemical' smell in the air.

Air and water samples are being sent for analysis at a German laboratory to find out what is creating the sheen on the surface.

Mr Bussau added: 'Although we are five kilometres away, we can feel here that this is contaminating and polluting the environment and this is dangerous for the environment and for the climate.

But a spokesman from the platform operator, Total, said: 'The only confirmation that we have had [of anything resembling an oil slick] is a sheen of gas condensate.'

He added that this condensate was a light hydrocarbon - similar to petrol - and was expected to dissipate naturally, either evaporating due to warmer weather or through wave action.

Meanwhile, the French oil giant has further delayed plans to fly engineers to stem the 11-day leak of explosive gas.

This is due to continuing adverse weather conditions, a company spokesman said yesterday.

Strong winds are reportedly blowing the gas cloud towards the spot where a helicopter carrying the team of crisis engineers would land - pushing relief efforts back to today or Friday.

The wind direction was initially forecast by the UK's Met Office to change by yesterday evening and through this morning.

It would have blown gas away from the landing point and allowed a team of eight experts to assess the steps needed to stop the large and potentially explosive leak.

The company - which has calculated that the leak is costing it [pounds sterling]1.6million a day - said on Tuesday that the team of engineers would assess conditions on the platform and find out whether a so-called 'well kill' was feasible. …