More information needed on oil spill

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 July, 2011, 12:00am


The Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year made clear to governments and companies that secrecy, stalling, poor communication, downplaying bad news and lack of preparedness combine to make environmental disasters worse. It was a lesson the central government appeared to have taken on board just months later when faced with China's worst such disaster, at a refinery in Dalian. But pledges, new policies and tough laws are of little worth unless they are strictly adhered to and enforced. What may be a catastrophic leakage in oilfields off the coast of Shandong province prove that point.

Exactly how bad the two spills at the Penglai 19-3 oilfield are remains a matter of speculation, even though they happened on June 4 and 17. Authorities only acknowledged on Tuesday they took place after weeks of increasing clamour on blogs. In short order, the admitted scale of the spill has been raised four-fold to 840 sq km, almost twice the area of the Dalian spill. They are said to be under control with the only small leakage remaining and clean-up work almost finished but this seems somewhat unlikely given the circumstances.

For one, spills can have a devastating impact on marine and coastal life that lasts for years. The government and the companies involved, the US operator ConocoPhillips and the majority owner, China's biggest offshore oil producer CNOOC, have not revealed how much was spilled. ConocoPhillips alerted the top ocean watchdog, the State Oceanic Administration, when the accident occurred, but no public announcement was made. No explanation was given for the unusual numbers of dead fish washing up onshore.

Mainland officials, mostly at the local level, have long had a culture of covering up disasters and downplaying their seriousness. That has been gradually changing since the outrage over the hushing up of Sars in 2003 and there is now generally a swift notification and prompt emergency response. That is what happened when an oil pipeline exploded at Dalian, but it has been worryingly absent this time.

A lack of official transparency and a state-controlled media that is afraid to criticise its master is a terrible combination. Just last month, the oceanic administration reported that at least half of China's offshore waters were polluted and the situation was getting worse. As economic development continues and the search for oil and gas in ever-deeper waters steps up, there is a greater chance of damage.

Tougher rules put in place last year are a good starting point. They have to be enforced and strengthened - the maximum 200,000 yuan (HK$240,000) fine that ConocoPhillips faces is not representative of the damage or an effective deterrent. As important, though, is the need for government and company officials to be open on environmental issues. And the media should be given free rein to investigate.