Gulf oil spill lesson for China

By Li Yan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-05 07:12
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Gulf oil spill lesson for China

Marine ecology is very fragile, so government should adopt all safety measures before drilling offshore

The catastrophic explosion in the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, operated by British energy giant BP, on April 20 has caused unprecedented oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of tons of crude continues to flow into the sea, causing serious environmental damage and severe economic loss.

The incident is an important lesson for China, which is exploring offshore drilling to exploit ocean resources.

The Deepwater Horizon incident shows how harmful an oil spill could be to the marine ecosystem and people's livelihood. Some American environmentalists have even said it would be difficult for the Gulf ecosystem to recover fully.

The oil spill has caused further damage to America's southern coastal areas, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina just five years ago. The huge cost of plugging the oil leak, if at all it is plugged, has even raised the risk of a "double dip" in the US economy.

The environmental disaster has affected domestic politics in the US, too. The Barack Obama administration has been criticized for its ill-management and sluggish response to disaster relief. Some critics have compared Obama's response to the oil spill with George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina. And with the mid-term election approaching, the oil spill could sharpen the contradictions between the Democrats and Republicans over issues such as energy and climate change.

Checking the impact of oil spills on the environment has always been difficult, but the Gulf disaster seems to be more dangerous than any before. Though the US government and BP have employed huge human and material resources to stop the oil leak, they have not been successful even after one and half months.

The rate and total volume of the oil spill have exceeded initial estimates. In fact, it could be the costliest environmental disaster. Such has been scale of damage that a Russian expert has even suggested triggering a nuclear blast to stop the spill.

The Gulf disaster teaches China an important lesson in ocean development and governance.

First, it highlights the fragility of the marine ecosystem (it is a lot more vulnerable than overland ecology), and the importance of coordinating ocean exploitation and governance. Marine ecology is more intricately related than the one overland. So even if one link in the network is breached (or broken), it could upset the entire marine ecological balance, which could have a devastating impact on humans.

Hence, while exploring the seas for resources, we should accord the highest priority to the protection of marine ecology.

China is stepping up its efforts to explore and exploit the seas for resources. The increasing number of such activities and sharply rising fleet of ships transporting goods have raised the possibility of accidents.

Making things complicated is our lax efforts to protect marine ecology. We should, instead, study the impact of human activities on marine organisms, water quality - rather the entire marine ecosystem - improve our environmental evaluation system and devise contingency plans to deal with accidents on seas.

Second, the problem with the US marine management system, exposed by the oil spill, could be seen as a warning for China. US media reports say BP had long been underestimating the risk of deepwater oil exploration, and the American government's supervision in this regard was far from foolproof. One reason for that is the dearth of functional departments in charge of marine affairs at the federal level.

Moreover, some of these regulators usually have close ties and common interests with oil companies. Hence, they have been granting more production licenses and paying less attention to safety.

Compared with the US, China's marine administrative system is even more decentralized. Several departments are part of marine affairs' administration; they range from maritime, fishery and environmental protection departments to transportation, Customs and border defense. And every costal province is independently in charge of its maritime area. Such a system weakens the functioning of comprehensive ocean management, and is low on efficiency and poor in information sharing.

Chinese oil companies, too, have a lot to learn from the Gulf oil spill. As a highly dangerous sector, offshore oil and gas development is vulnerable to accidents, which could pollute oceans and trigger secondary disasters.

With energy demand continuing to mount, China will depend more and more on offshore oil and gas resources. The problem is that Chinese oil companies' relatively backward technology and management levels make them more vulnerable to such accidents. Therefore, they should be extra careful in ensuring safety in production and strengthening safety measures while drilling offshore.

The author is a research scholar with the Institute of American Studies, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

China Forum

(China Daily 06/05/2010 page5)