Total: Gas leak ongoing at Nigeria plant

April 14, 2012 

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) - French oil firm Total SA said Saturday that a natural gas leak at one of its plants in Nigeria's crude-rich southern delta may have been going on for weeks.

The leak at its Obite natural gas site has forced the company to evacuate those nearby and led to daily monitoring of air and water surrounding the plant in Nigeria's Rivers state. However, Total's Nigerian subsidiary hasn't made any public statement about the leak since it likely began following an incident March 20, though the company has given near-daily updates about a similar leak at a plant off the United Kingdom in the North Sea.

In a statement, Total's Nigerian subsidiary said workers noticed a mix of water and natural gas bubbling up from an uninhabited site near the Obite plant on April 3. Total said there had been no injuries from the leaks, which it said likely followed the "technical incident" on March 20.

Total spokesman Charles Ebereonwu said Saturday he did not have details of the incident.

"All necessary means to ensure the protection of nearby communities and personnel and to limit the impact on the environment have been immediately mobilized," Total said in a statement on its subsidiary's website dated Thursday. "Strict monitoring of the environment is ongoing and a safety perimeter has been established."

The statement said testing has not found any "toxic elements" in the environment.

Rumors about an accident at a Total operation have circulated in Nigeria for weeks, though the company remained silent.

Asked why the company hadn't publicized the Obite gas plant leak, Ebereonwu said Total's Nigerian subsidiary had been posting updates on its website. However, the company has not sent any information to journalists.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with more than 160 million residents, is a top energy supplier to the U.S. The OPEC member nation also has seen foreign oil firms boost production of natural gas in recent years.

However, environmental and industry regulations lag behind spills and violence in its oil-rich Niger Delta, a region of mangroves and swamps about the size of Portugal. Some environmentalists say much as 2.1 billion liters (550 million gallons) of oil have spilled during more than 50 years of production. That would be at a rate roughly comparable to one Exxon Valdez disaster per year in a region where oil still stains beaches and waterways.

Many foreign oil firms blame thieves for much of the oil spills now happening in the region, as they tap into pipelines to steal crude. However, there have been a series of major spills and accidents in the last six months, including a spill by Royal Dutch Shell PLC at its offshore Bonga facility that saw some 40,000 barrels of oil spill.

Total's Obite gas plant exports a capacity of 10.65 million metric cubes of natural gas, and collects oil condensate to mix with crude oil it produces from another area, the company has said. Total operates in the plant in partnership with the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp.

Total said it has stopped production at the Obite plant and shut down its wells.

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Online:

Total SA in Nigeria: http://www.ng.total.com

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.

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