In March 2012 there was a gas leak at an Elgin field which led to the evacuation of hundreds of staff. The leak produced 6,000 tonnes of gas and was the largest ever to occur in the North Sea. A more serious disaster was only averted “because winds kept the plume of gas away from nearby flares”.  A two-mile wide shipping and aircraft exclusion zone was established and it took 51 days to  bring the leak under control.

The leak happened when Total failed to shut down a well after discovering a fault. Mr Breen of the HSE said the failings “contributed to them losing control of the well and the sudden uncontrolled release of gas”.

He added: “This is an important reminder of the ever-present hazards with oil and gas production and the need for them to be rigorously managed.”

Total said: “Total regrets the gas leak, we failed to meet the very high standards we set ourselves, and which we have historically achieved. Safety is our highest priority. Following the incident we carried out our own investigation to identify the causes of the incident and what can be done to prevent similar incidents in future.”

Despite the fine being the highest ever to be imposed upon a North Sea operator, the level of fine was criticized by Jake Molloy, the oil industry representative for the RMT, who said “How hefty is hefty when a firm is making a million pounds an hour?” Total, like so many other producers, has come into court, pleaded guilty and begged forgiveness, and assured us all that it won’t happen again.”

A shot across the bows, perhaps, for any similar future incidents, particularly with the new sentencing guidelines now likely to push fines against very large organisations upwards significantly. A very large organisation will be one turning over sums very greatly in excess of £50million annually. What counts as “very greatly” in excess, however, has not been defined.