China's Silence Over Oil Spill Damages Its Credibility

      July 07, 2011 13:00

      It has been a month since a massive oil spill in China's largest offshore oil field in Bohai Bay, but the Chinese government has yet to inform Seoul of the details. China finally admitted on Tuesday that oil leaked from two offshore platforms on June 4 and 17 causing damage to an 840 sq.km area (1.4 times the area of Seoul), but said the rigs was sealed and most of the slick mopped up.

      But right after the spill became evident at the end of last month, Beijing claimed the damage covered only a 200 sq.m area, and less than 10 tons of oil had been spilled. This raises serious concerns about the credibility of China's announcements.

      Korea, China, Japan and Russia signed the Northwest Pacific Ocean Preservation Plan in 1998, which binds each country to immediately inform other signatories of oil spills and, if necessary, cooperate in clean-up operations and share equipment and experts in the field. Korea abided by that agreement when a massive oil spill occurred off the coast of Taean in 2007 and immediately informed China, Japan and Russia. Beijing and Tokyo provided oil-absorbent materials and other supplies.

      The West Sea is relatively shallow with an average depth of less than 40 m, and its currents are relatively slow. When an oil spill occurs there, it could end up affecting all of the coasts of Korea and China. If a disaster like Fukushima occurs at one of the 13 nuclear power plants clustered along China's east coast, Korea would suffer serious contamination along its coastal waters.

      Yet China refused to respond to three queries from Seoul about the Bohai Bay accident. Following a report by the Chosun Ilbo, Beijing merely sent the government an e-mail on Tuesday with pretty much the same information as its announcement. There were no key details, such as the amount of oil leaked. In three other oil spills over the last three years, China also declined to give information about the cause of the accident, the amount of oil that was spilled and the extent of the damage.

      When an underwater oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April last year, 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked out covering a 6,500 sq.km area, which is 11 times the area of Seoul, causing US$30 billion in damage. If a disaster of that magnitude happens in China, how long will it take for Beijing to stem the spread and to what extent would China be willing to compensate Korea? As long as China continues to take such a cavalier approach to tackling such problems and continues to build offshore oil platforms, the West Sea must be seen as a danger zone.

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