ConocoPhillips (UK) Ltd was on Monday February 8 fined £3 million following a major leak at a North Sea gas platform off the Lincolnshire coast.
The company, which admitted three breaches of health and safety regulations, was also ordered to pay £159,000 costs.
The incident in November 2012 followed a number of previous, less serious gas leaks at the Lincolnshire Offshore Gas Gathering System which converts natural gas into liquid form allowing it to be transported by pipeline to the Theddlethorpe terminal on the East Coast.
Lincoln Crown Court was told 603 kgs of gas was released causing danger that even a spark from a workman dropping a tool could have resulted in a disaster.
All non-essential workers were evacuated and lives were put at risk by the leak.
Judge John Pini QC, passing sentence, said: “There was here an uncontrolled release of potentially explosive gas.
“There was a significant chance of the gas igniting. Had that happened the risk of death or serious injury would have been extremely high.
“The incident, mercifully, did not result in loss of life or injury but it had all the potential for both.
“There was a failure to identify the risks posed. There was inadequate oversight and control of the permit to work system.”
Pascal Bates, prosecuting for the Health & Safety Executive, said the lives of the 66 workers on the platform, 70 miles off the Lincolnshire coast, were put at risk.
Mr Bates said there had been two earlier, less serious releases of gas before the major incident.
The gas releases occurred in November 2012 after a valve was removed for repairs on the platform which provided power to the site. A second valve was not closed off with the result that gas was released.
A maintenance worker said Bates could have sparked a fire or an explosion simply by falling back or dropping a metal tool.
Eventually the problem was identified as being caused by an open valve and a worker managed to shut it several hours after the first gas was released.
Bates said: “There was a foreseeable and significant risk. It was fortunate there were not deaths or serious injuries.
“Had there been gas ignition there would have been an extremely high risk of multiple deaths. Not necessarily all 66 workers but it could have been a very serious international-level incident.”
ConocoPhillips (UK) Limited admitted three charges of breach of health and safety regulations. The offences occurred on dates up to December 1, 2012.
Richard Lissack, QC, for ConocoPhillips, said: “The company responded rapidly and decisively to the incident without any regard for either the cost or the legal consequences, openly working together with the Health & Safety Executive to address the problems. The company wishes to ensure there is never a repeat.”
He said that the company’s fire and gas detection system worked and the shut-down system operated exactly as it was designed to do preventing any fire or explosion.
The court was told that since the incident ConocoPhillips has spent over £1 million introducing new systems to prevent a repeat occurrence. The company has also paid the £400,000 costs of the HSE investigation.