Thursday, 21 July 2011

Spilling Over a Cover Up

A photo grab of a television report on the spill
 Face is everything for China, especially when it comes to important anniversaries.
During the recent 90th anniversary marking the the Communist Party of China's founding on July 1, former President Jiang Zemin was noticeably absent sparking rumours of his demise which were later found to be false.
But just a few weeks before the celebrations, there was also a massive oil spill in the Bohai Sea that no one heard about until a few weeks after the big party was over. Sound familiar to the melamine milk scandal that erupted after the Beijing Olympics?
It's now estimated some 1,500 barrels of oil spilled last month from China's largest oilfield and is now starting to wash ashore on two beaches along the Bohai Sea, some 170 kilometres away. The contaminated area is more than 4,200 square kilometres, four times the size of Hong Kong.
Environmentalists are calling it one of the worst ecological disasters in decades that could devastate the fishing and tourism industries there.
The first issue is that three parties are to blame for this spill: China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) is the majority owner of the Penglai 19-3 oilfield and it has contracted the extracting to its American operator ConocoPhillips. Also at fault is the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). All three have been accused of covering up the spill for over a month.
The spill happened on June 4 and ConocoPhillips told SOA about it on the same day. But apparently SOA did nothing and even claimed it didn't know about the spill until nine days later. SOA has also only had one media briefing about the spill, when it would be expected at least on a daily basis in North America.
Caijing magazine also reported CNOOC, which owns 51 percent of the oilfield, urged ConocoPhillips not to go public about the spills, citing "important upcoming events", a reference to the July 1 anniversary celebrations. CNOOC only confirmed the spill on July 1, almost 10 days after it was reported on micro-blogging sites like Sina Weibo.
Then the blame game began. ConocoPhillips' China president Georg Storaker was asked if the company would have delayed releasing information in the United States, and he insisted his company followed proper procedures in terms of information disclosure on the mainland; which leads one to wonder why the government allows such a lag time in disclosing information that is potentially environmentally damaging.

Then the media started poking at the SOA, demanding to know why it took so long to disclose the spills. SOA responded that it had rarely seen such an incident and needed more time to study it -- a classic government reply.
Then the government body tried to put all the blame on the US company in order to exonerate CNOOC, saying it was not directly involved in the drilling operations. This angered the public so much that SOA looked even more like a lame duck.

And now the second more pressing issue is how to clean up the mess. The authorities are cleaning up small tar balls that have washed up along the four kilometre coastline which is a big patch of area to cover. ConocoPhillips says it's doing all it can to stop the leaks and is dispersing the spills with chemicals and absorbent mats.

But it sounds like the spill is hardly contained.
Ma Jun, a leading water pollution expert says the impact of the spill has been "greatly underestimated" and that more information needs to be disclosed on exactly how much oil has leaked into the sea.
About a year ago I remember reading in state media in Beijing how China was proudly boasting about the Bohai oil reserves there and how the country would be able to ease its dependency on foreign oil.
But this spill proves China is not taking its environmental responsibilities seriously. There are natural wetlands in the area and a variety of sea life unique to the area. These spills are going to cause serious damage to the area.

It's great to see Chinese citizens becoming more environmentally aware and displaying their anger about how the government is handling the situation. If anything as a watchdog SOA should be severely punishing CNOOC and ConocoPhillips, not making excuses for them.

The future of the land and its people are at stake.

But then again with over half of all the rivers in China utterly polluted and undrinkable, should we be surprised?

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