Chinese Oil Spill Half the Size of London Went Unreported for a Month

The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts reports the cover-up by rig operators and the official State Oceanic Administration of a large oil spill in China’s Bohai Sea.

It has taken a month for news to emerge about the leak from a well in the Penglai 19-3 field operated by the US energy company ConocoPhillips in partnership with the China National Offshore Oil Corporation ….

The companies detected the problem on 4 June, but it only came to light on 21 June thanks to a microblog leak rather than an official release. After initially downplaying the accident, the authorities finally revealed this week that it covers an area half the size of Greater London. [or a fifth the size of Rhode Island, or three-quarters the size of Hong Kong.]

The State Oceanic Administration (SOA) said on Tuesday that the seabed leak is the first of its kind in China and the water quality in the affected area has fallen to the lowest of its four categories.

Information remains sketchy. Neither company has responded to The Guardian’s request for details. Despite vague reassurances from CNOOC on Wednesday that problem is “basically under control”, there has been no estimate of the amount of oil discharged or the potential impact on marine life and coastlines. The government also revealed that the maximum penalty for such incidents is 200,000 yuan (£19,000). Compensation is likely to be considerably higher.

Once the news did leak, the authorities rushed to assign blame to the rig’s foreign operator (as has become traditional in such cases). From The New York Times:

Officials at the [State Oceanic Administration] said ConocoPhillips China, a subsidiary of the Houston-based energy giant that operates the rigs with a Chinese state-owned company, “should take the blame” for the accident, which occurred in the mouth of the Bohai Sea, a largely enclosed body of water that touches on three provinces and the city of Tianjin.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, an official at the oceanic agency’s Beihai branch, said the minimum fine would be about $30,000, a figure that could rise depending on the extent of the economic and ecological damage.

The company owns a 49 percent stake in the venture, Penglai 19-3, which is the country’s largest offshore oil discovery, reportedly producing 150,000 barrels a day. It operates the rig with China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation.

The Financial Times’ beyond brics blog describes critical reactions in China to the lack of transparency surrounding the incident:

Although neither the companies nor the government have given an estimate for how much oil was released into the ocean by the two spills, reports in coastal Shandong, which is as close as 40km to the well in some places, say local fishermen have noticed unusual numbers of dead fish.

“My revenue last month was more than 50,000 yuan less compared with same period of last year,” a Shandong fisherman told the state-owned Jiefang Daily. Media outcry prompted the government to hold a press conference on Tuesday—the first official acknowledgment of the spill—where officials said a cleanup was underway and that the causes of the spill were being investigated.

Chinese state-owned media, traditionally reluctant to criticize the government, have railed against the cover up. An editorial in the Global Times said:

“We cannot help but wonder: Is the [State Oceanic Administration] a serious watchdog that exists to prevent bigger incidents from happening, or a loving parent who is over-protective of his own child? . . it is not acceptable that the [State Oceanic Administration], which had learned about the incident in early June, hold the news until a month later.”