About 840 square kilometers of sea off the coast of Shandong Province is polluted by oil as a result of two spills at a Sino-US co-developed offshore oilfield, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) said on Tuesday, the first official confirmation since it was informed of the accident a month ago.
Production has been suspended at two platforms at the Penglai 19-3 oilfield in the Bohai Bay, which has an estimated maximum daily output of 165,000 barrels, while oil sorbent mats and oil containment fences are being used in the clean-up efforts, according to the SOA.
Sporadic minor leakages are still occurring but the situation was controllable, the SOA said, though it did not specify how much oil had leaked.
The SOA said it received a report on June 4 by ConocoPhillips China (COPC), operator of the Penglai 19-3 oilfield, after "a small amount of oil film" was found near the oilfield's platform B.
Investigators later found that the leak on the ground of the 28-meter-deep seabed resulted from the increased pressure caused by water injections, even though there is no pipe or well near the leakage point, said Li Xiaoming, director of the marine environmental protection division under the SOA at a press conference on Tuesday.
The spill from the seabed near platform B was the first of its kind to happen in China, and it's also rarely seen worldwide, Li said.
Following the accident, a larger oil spill was discovered on platform C of the same oilfield on June 17 due to a surge in the well coupled with leaks on the side, according to the SOA.
The field is jointly developed by COPC and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the country's largest offshore oil and gas producer.
SOA attributed its belated notification to "technical restrictions" in collecting data to map out the whole situation, underscoring that little fishing activity takes place in the polluted area, which is far from the coast.
The outskirts of the oil belt is estimated to be 38 kilometers from Changdao county of Shandong, according to Cui Wenlin, a senior SOA official.
The leakage raised concerns among environmental groups amid complaints by the fishery industry that a timely warning of the incidents was lacking.
Yang Fuqiang, a senior advisor on climate and energy to the US-based National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told the Global Times that the affected area and the seriousness of the incident is much greater than originally thought, which made it all the more urgent for the administration to disclose related information earlier.
"You can't just inform the public only after you claim the situation is under control," Yang said, warning of risks of further leaks from the strata under platform B where the geological structure may have been damaged by previous operations.
Meanwhile, 11 environmental protection NGOs jointly filed an open letter on Tuesday, condemning the two companies for hiding the spills from the public and demanding an immediate apology and explanation of the accidents.
The SOA claimed that it had reported the situation to the State Council and to local governments so that they could inform fishermen.
However, a 40-year-old fisherman surnamed Yu in Penglai, Shandong, told the Global Times on Tuesday that he hadn't received any notification from the local government so far, but said damage might be small as the accidents occurred during the fishing moratorium, which started in June and ends in September this year.
Zhao Zhangyuan, a researcher at the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, said that the fishing industry in Bohai would be dealt a strong blow after the oil-spill incident, as it would take a long time for the ocean ecology to recover.
The spill occurred near the Penglai harbor, which is an important site for sea fish to spawn, Zhao said.
Yang echoed the idea, saying that Bohai is vulnerable to pollution due to its slow water exchange and weak self-purification capability, which would make the damage a long-term issue.
As the operator of the oilfield, CPOC is legally responsible for the accident, SOA said. According to the Marine Environment Protection Law of China, the highest penalty for such incidents would be 200,000 yuan ($30,300), said Wang Bing, deputy director of the marine environmental protection division under the SOA.
Wang said the SOA also has the right to demand ecological compensation from the CPOC for the damages caused by the spills, and that there is no legal cap on the indemnity.
"Even though the administration has the right for further compensation, the current penalty is too low to alert offshore oil exploration companies of possible risks within their operations," Yang said.
With the country exploiting more of its offshore oil reserves, it's necessary for the government to take a stern stance and stipulate harsher rules for enterprises both in China and abroad involved in these activities, Yang said.
The country suffered its largest oil spill in Dalian in northeastern Liaoning Province last July, when 1,500 tons of oil spilled from a storage depot. However, local fishermen received little or no compensation from PetroChina, the company responsible for the accident.
"The spill in the Gulf of Mexico almost bankrupted BP after trillions of dollars in penalties charged by the US government. Chinese authorities should also draw the lesson from their US counterparts by punishing those who brought great damage with massive compensation so as to prevent such incidents from happening again," Yang said.
Liu Linlin contributed to this story