LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) - French oil company Total SA said Sunday it stopped a natural gas leak at one of its plants in Nigeria's crude-rich southern delta after 54 days, an emergency that forced the firm to shut down the field and evacuate the area.
Total said it used heavy fluids and cement plugs to stop the gas flow from its Obite natural gas field in Rivers state, in the heart of the country's Niger Delta. Workers will put a cement seal on the well to permanently staunch the flow from the well, Total said in a statement.
Fred Ohwahwa, a spokesman for Total's Nigerian subsidiary, said Sunday that the company hoped to restart gas production at the plant soon, but that he didn't know an exact date. Crude oil production at the facility continued while the gas plant there was shut down during the leak, he said.
Workers noticed a mix of water and natural gas bubbling up from portion of a marshy site near the plant on April 3, the company has said. Officials blamed it on a "technical incident" that occurred there March 20, without giving any other details. Rumors about an accident at a Total operation had circulated in Nigeria for weeks, though the company remained silent.
Total said its workers will continue to sample air and water around the plant to make sure there is no residual pollution from the gas leak, though the company has said it found no toxic damage in the time since the leak began.
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.
Natural gas projects in Nigeria also have seen serious accidents in recent months as well. On Jan. 16, an offshore Chevron Corp. gas rig exploded in an apparent industrial accident that killed two expatriate workers. Natural gas bubbled to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and fueled a massive fire on the water for weeks after the explosion.
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 SA in Nigeria: http://www.ng.total.com
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.