Energy & Resources

What lies beneath?

Pipeline blast leads to recriminations


The scene of the explosion

Forty years ago China’s largest oil refiner Sinopec began building a depot on Huangdao, a small headland that sits on the other side of the bay from the city of Qingdao.

Ten years later Huangdao was incorporated into its better-known neighbour and declared a special economic zone.

Twenty year after that – as the local population reached close to three million – Sinopec began constructing  a “mega-refinery ” there.

And one week ago, a 27 year-old oil pipeline sprung a leak beneath a residential street in the city, fuelling two explosions that killed at least 55 people and injured 145 more.

The disaster immediately raised questions about the safety of China’s urbanisation drive – significant because it’s Premier Li Keqiang’s central policy idea for keeping the economy growing (see WiC186).

The pictures of smoking craters, overturned cars and burned bodies were graphic. Netizens were soon baying for the blood of those responsible. “This explosion is not an accident, it’s murder,” wrote one weibo user. Another fumed: “We don’t even need enemies like Japan or America. Our own government buried the bombs under our feet.”

Even the mainstream media sounded a note of concern, asking whether China’s pace of ‘modernisation was too fast”.

“In recent years, instead of cutting back the petroleum industry in Huangdao, the government encouraged it to expand. Huangdao district seems to have chosen to ignore the safety hazards and to still stride forward in a new round of urbanisation,”  the Beijing News wrote in an editorial.

Sensing the significance of the blast, the government was quick to react. President Xi Jinping travelled to the blast site within 48 hours to meet with victims of the explosion. He sounded horrified at what had unfolded, promising action too.

“This accident once again sounded an alarm for us that production safety must be ensured. Otherwise, it will bring irredeemable loss for the country and the people,” Xinhua reported Xi as saying.

Xi also called for a major new programme to check oil and gas pipelines “with inspectors going deep into the production sites anonymously and unannounced.”

The tragedy could not have happened at a worse time for China’s oil industry. In the past few months it has been embroiled in scandal, with seven executives from the largest energy company,  China National Petroleum Company, detained for corruption (see WiC211).

But the blast also comes at a time when state owned enterprises like Sinopec could see some of their role reduced. Earlier this month at its Third Plenum, China’s Communist Party agreed it would begin to break more of the SOEs “administrative monopoly”, although the details on how this is going to be achieved are still to be finalised.

Netizens are already accusing Sinopec of malpractice in the Huangdao disaster, especially for its delays in evacuating nearby buildings. It seems that the oil firm first detected the leak at 2.40am on Friday morning, but didn’t alert the city authorities until around 7am, about four hours before the blasts occurred.

However, the fact that the explosion seems to have originated in a municipal water pipe laid alongside the Sinopec pipe means that the oil firm may avoid taking sole blame – though it has placed Sinopec back in its familiar PR doghouse (see WiC207 for our analysis of its poor public relations). And for some of its staff the retribution process has already begun.

On Tuesday the Qingdao police used its microblog to announce that it had arrested nine people after the disaster: seven from Sinopec and two officials from the special economic zone where the explosion took place.

Sadly, ‘where next’ remains the fear of many citizens, with the Huangdao incident highlighting how dangerous many of the pipes laid beneath Chinese feet are. Haphazard planning suggests other pipes could be just as lethal to nearby residents.

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