Oil spills risk under-reported

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am

Two oil spills off the coast of Shandong province last month were far more serious than previously claimed by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the central government admitted yesterday, blaming the oilfield's US operator, ConocoPhillips.

The State Oceanic Administration said it was investigating the role of the US company, which holds a 49 per cent stake in the oilfield, and that it might demand compensation for environmental damage from the US oil giant. In the first government briefing since the spills a month ago in the Penglai 19-3 oilfield, the administration said two spills - on June 4 and 17 - had polluted 840 square kilometres of sea.

That is far more than the 200 square metres claimed by CNOOC officials. CNOOC holds 51 per cent of the largest offshore oilfield in China and together with ConocoPhillips has been facing mounting public pressure over the delay in public disclosure about the spills. Li Xiaoming , the administration's director of ocean environmental protection, said yesterday the spills from the two platforms were basically under control and there was no obvious sign of oil floating on the sea, although a small slick could still be seen near the two platforms.

The authorities are still assessing the long-term environmental impact of the spills.

Wang Bin, his deputy, said the maximum penalty for sea pollution was 200,000 yuan (HK$240,000), but the central government could demand compensation from ConocoPhillips after it had completed an environmental assessment of the spills.

A preliminary investigation showed the leaks could have been caused by increased pressure in the oilfield after water was injected while drilling for oil, Li said.

CNOOC and ConocoPhilips had no immediate comment on the administration's press briefing but CNOOC spokesman Jiang Yongzhi did say: 'There will be a statement very soon.'

Although the spills were small in comparison with the three-month-long accident at BP's Deep Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico last year, experts said both companies should be held responsible for their delay in informing the public.

Such a long delay 'can only be described as shocking', said Ma Jun , head of a China-based environmental non-governmental organisation, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Although Chinese law holds the operator responsible for any accident and its consequences, Ma said CNOOC's trustworthiness to investors, and social responsibility, was also questionable. On Monday, 11 environmental protection organisations on the mainland signed an open letter to the two companies calling on them to speedily disclose details of the spills.

Professor Han Xuegong, from the CNPC Managers' Training Institute, said CNOOC should not shirk its responsibility and that both publicly-listed companies were obliged to operate transparently.