Energy & Resources

Silent treatment

BP battered by press, but PetroChina spared

Silent treatment

Cleaning up, China-style

“Not completely our fault’ is the four word summary of the report released by BP on Wednesday into the Gulf of Mexico disaster. It’s only the opening salvo. The oil flow may have been plugged but the legal fees will likely gush for years.

Back in June, Gady Epstein at Forbes magazine speculated on what would have happened if the BP spill had been in Chinese waters.

Here’s his (edited) sequence of events. First a news blackout, followed by the swift dispatch of Premier Wen Jiabao (the leadership’s go-to man when empathy is required at disaster scenes). China’s internet community goes apopletic, and British businesses suffer a full-scale boycott. But the PLA mobilises heroically to defend the shores from the encroaching oil. A reverse-engineered solution to the leaking well is conjured up at Chinese warp-speed, to general celebration. But not before action star Jackie Chan has had time to praise Beijing’s response publicly.

All that remains is to sentence Hayward in absentia. In this case, less a firing and more a firing squad.

What Epstein didn’t know then was that China really would have an oil spill of its own, a month later in Dalian. How much of it did he get right?

One big distinction, of course, was that it was state-controlled PetroChina which suffered the spill, after one of its pipelines exploded. That did not escape mention in the local media (although not always in quite the detail that BP’s troubles in the US were covered). The press were ‘guided’ to focus more on the efforts (heroic ones, true enough) of those involved in the clean up. The foreign media applauded too, although raised an eyebrow at pictures of fishermen up to their chins in the black stuff. Some of the clean up efforts looked hazardous, to say the least.

Clearly PetroChina avoided some of the scrutiny that it might have expected elsewhere. In fact, its chief tactic seems to have been to say as little as possible. It didn’t even send representatives to press conferences held by the Dalian municipal government (imagine if BP had tried that in Louisiana).

According to local media, the silent treatment has been employed before, including the aftermath of a blowout at a PetroChina gasfield near Chongqing in 2003, when 234 people were killed. “For major political events and mass incidents, we generally don’t release information to the outside,” a company insider explained to the Economy & Nation Weekly.

How about Wen? Did he turn up? It doesn’t look like he did in person, although he did send various instructions on how best to proceed. That may have helped limit the spill’s fallout, which officials soon announced was capped at 1,500 tonnes of crude, a fraction of the BP experience. Environmental groups have been sceptical of the estimate, with Greenpeace putting an upper limit on the spill of 90,000 tonnes.

Within 10 days Xinhua was announcing that the spill had been fully contained (pretty much spot on with Epstein’s ‘what if’ scenario). “BP must envy the ease with which CNPC [PetroChina’s parent] has dealt with a major oil spill” was the take in a Global Times opinion piece. All quick enough, in fact, for Jackie Chan not to get an encouraging word in. (Then again, he’s been keeping a lower profile recently after a product that he promotes got criticised in the press).

Back to the Dalian spill: according to the South China Morning Post last week, most of the clean up work seems to have been completed. A fishing ban is also being relaxed. But there are also major differences in how compensation is likely to be paid out to those affected by the disaster. In Louisiana BP is facing a massive bill (this week’s report notwithstanding) and after the Dalian spill, fishermen along the Liaoning coast also want a payout. “I can do nothing but wait for compensation and see whether it is reasonable,” one fisherman told the Southern Metropolis Weekly last month. “If not, I will go to court.”

Whether that will lead to much of a payout is debatable, even though a PetroChina subsidiary has now been identified as partly responsible for the accident. The Dalian spill lacked the magnitude of the Gulf of Mexico disaster. The financial settlement will likely do the same.

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