Rigging the news

Oil spill cover-up draws angry comments from Chinese media

Rigging the news

Leaking everything, but news

When it comes to PR disasters, Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back” gaffe will take some topping.

With 11 deaths reported from the explosion on the BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico (and oil still spilling out into the ocean deep), Hayward’s offhand comments were vilified by news media in the US.

The former BP boss would have had a lot more time to carefully choose his words if the leak had been in China waters.

That’s the conclusion from a more recent oil spill in Bohai Bay, which was kept under wraps for weeks. Government officials, as well as CNOOC and ConocoPhillips oilmen, only came clean on the accident more than a month after they first discovered it.

The media’s conclusion: the country’s response to environmental disasters is as opaque as ever.

The incident comes less than a year after CNOOC had said it would review its offshore drilling operations to ensure their safety (in the wake of BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico).

But apparently, the commitment has not gone far enough. In the current case, drilling at one platform caused a leak on the seabed on June 4. Then a ‘surge’ at another rig caused another spill two weeks later. The Chinese oil major, along with ConocoPhillips (part-owner and operator of the rigs) finally stemmed the flow on June 21.

The response that followed was murkier than the bay’s contaminated seawater. Although ConocoPhillips apparently reported both incidents to the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) immediately, the transparency ended there. Local villagers, fishermen and the general public were all kept in the dark on the spill.

Awareness only started to grow after speculation on Sina Weibo, which was then confirmed by a Southern Weekend investigation on June 30.

Company representatives immediately reverted to the ‘traditional’ method of dealing with a disaster: play it down. They released a statement the following day saying that the leak was under control and that the clean-up was almost finished. A CNOOC spokesman confirmed to China National Radio that the impact on marine life had been minimal and that only 200 square metres of water had been affected.

It’s not hard to see why they wanted to downplay the news. After all, July 1 was an important day – the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party.

But with the anniversary celebrations safely completed, a more accurate picture began to emerge. “The impact is long-term and complicated,” Wang Bin, deputy director of the SOA’s marine environment protection department then told reporters. The size of the spill was also updated to 840 square kilometres (4,200 times more than admitted days before).

The disparity of the two assessments provoked a furious response from the press. Officials had been “dealing with a funeral as if it was a wedding,” fumed the National Business Daily, blaming both the local government and CNOOC, which were “opaque with a heavy dose of bureaucracy”.

“Although CNOOC said it did not conceal the accident, [the] delay of more than one month has reflected its lack of social and environmental responsibility,” agreed the People’s Daily. The public had a “right to know and to supervise,” it insisted.

As the media coverage widened, reporters from Caijing magazine discovered that CNOOC had suffered another spill in Bohai Bay waters early last year, which went unreported (other than in an article in a fairly obscure trade magazine).

But it will be harder to keep similar incidents low-profile in future, as the bad publicity now appears to have caught up with the rig’s operators.

Another, much smaller spill on Tuesday this week saw ConocoPhillips ordered to suspend operations at the troubled platforms immediately.

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