Oil that spewed from an offshore drilling rig in northeastern China for two weeks last month has spread over 320 square miles, government officials acknowledged Tuesday, amid public uproar over why it took so long for fishermen, local residents and environmental groups to be informed of the spill.
News of the accident emerged in late June on the microblogging site Sina Weibo and was not confirmed by the state-owned operator until last Friday. The government sought to play down the significance of the leak, saying the environmental repercussions were most likely insignificant and blaming the rig’s Western operator.
“There is no visible floating oil on the sea and the leak is now under control,” said a spokesman for the State Oceanic Administration, according to a transcript of a news conference posted on its Web site, although another official acknowledged that a small slick could be seen from the two platforms involved in the accident.
Officials at the agency 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.
ConocoPhillips officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday, but in an earlier e-mailed statement, the company said that it was still investigating the scope of the leak and that there had been no reported impact on wildlife, fishing or shipping activities.
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.
In recent days, several Chinese media outlets have reported die-offs among fish farmed in ocean enclosures, but such accounts could not be verified Tuesday.
According to the oceanic agency’s Web site, a leak was first detected June 4 and then again on June 17. It said the spills occurred during the drilling process, when water is forced into the earth’s crust. By June 19, the problem was under control, the agency said, and by Monday, 40 cubic meters of oily water had been removed from the sea.
Yang Fuqiang, a senior adviser on climate and energy at the Beijing offices of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group based in the United States, said that even if the environmental damage turned out to be minimal, the long delay in publicizing the accident erodes public trust in the government and its state-run energy companies. “According to the regulations, any oil spill has to be reported to the public,” he said. “People who live in coastal areas have a right to know so they can make preparations.”
In a commentary published in The Global Times on Tuesday, Han Xiaoping, a columnist for the Web site China Energy Network, accused the state-run oil company of evasion and the government of playing a role in a cover-up. “We do everything to protect state-owned enterprises, which eventually leads them to think they can always get support from the government when they get into trouble,” he wrote.
The case comes nearly a year after a major oil spill near Dalian, not far from the Bohai Sea, that also raised questions about whether the government was giving an honest accounting — and whether there was lasting impact on aquatic life.
In that spill, an explosion ruptured a pipeline at an onshore oil storage site run by the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, forcing emergency workers to empty the contents of an enormous oil tank. More than 11,000 barrels of oil flowed into the Yellow Sea, the government said, fouling miles of beaches and a large stretch of ocean. Environmental groups like Greenpeace, however, say the figure was much larger.
Shi Da contributed research.
The New York Times