(July 29, 2010) The Dalian oil spill and other environmental tragedies demand thorough investigations and fair penalties.
An oil pipeline explosion at the port of Dalian on July 16 spilled about 1,500 tons of crude oil into the sea. The next day, on the other side of the planet, BP managed to cap a leaking oil well that had dumped millions of tons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a three-month period.
The Dalian leak was by far the smaller of the two oil spills. Nonetheless, crude seriously polluted the Bohai Sea. And the incident alerted China to the potential for future environmental disasters, as well as the need for vigilant oversight of companies involved in businesses with pollution risks.
In China and around the world, environmental risk can be closely linked to business success. Enterprises with foresight should never hide their pollution, and authorities should work hard to prevent violations of environmental laws as well as prosecute responsible parties. Victims of environmental catastrophes should never shoulder the grave consequences alone.
Environmental incidents are not inevitable in the course of economic development. Fundamental operational procedures based on advanced technology and past experience are now readily available. These can help prevent serious incidents or alleviate their consequences.
Indeed, much can be learned from the Gulf incident as well as what happened at Dalian’s port.
An old Chinese proverb says “one wrong move leads to eternal regrets.” This has certainly proved true for BP, which is now paying an enormous price for its blunder. BP is a top-notch firm with cutting-edge technology, but it counted on luck rather than proper operational management, and that brought disaster.
Looking back, experts say BP jury rigged the ill-fated deep sea oil well in ways that helped save less than five working days and about US$ 11 million but resulted in a terrible oil spill.
BP set up a US$ 20 billion compensation fund and halted dividend payments for three quarters. Yet the incident tarnished the company’s image and harmed public interests. BP has been banned from leasing additional coastal oil fields, a penalty that undoubtedly dealt a heavy blow for a company that depends on offshore oil.
Meanwhile, the Dalian spill occurred at a time when China is grappling with defects in its own environmental protection laws. These laws are not strictly enforced, and media scrutiny of polluters is lacking.
Since potential violators cannot be monitored effectively under present circumstances in China, more environmental disasters may be on the horizon.
China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection handled 14 major cases of environmental pollution in 2004, according to the ministry’s Environmental Monitoring Bureau. But only a case of ammonia pollution on the Tuojiang River in Sichuan Province resulted in penalty.
Since then, China’s environment has been damaged by many major pollution incidents. In most of these cases, violators have yet to be brought to court.
The oil giant PetroChina was involved in several cases. In 2005, for example, a PetroChina-owned benzene plant in Jilin exploded and seriously contaminated the Songhua River. Early this year, oil leaked from a PetroChina pipeline in western Shanxi Province.
Penalties paid by Chinese enterprises that seriously polluted the environment in recent years have been practically too small to mention. At the port of Dalian, for example, fines imposed on various companies whose ships spilled oil in the water long before the pipeline explosion have been far below the actual clean-up costs. Despite damage to the sea’s ecology, most polluters have been fined no more than 300,000 yuan.
An exception was the 2005 case of the Portuguese oil tanker Arteaga, which ran aground and leaked hundreds of tons of oil. The Dalian City Oceanic & Fisheries Administration sued the foreign owner of the ship for damages in a case that is still awaiting a final court verdict. And more than 100 fish-farming enterprises have sought more than 1 billion yuan in damages.
If the Arteaga had been owned by a Chinese company, however, the post-spill reaction from law authorities likely would have been a lot different.
To raise the responsibility bar for Chinese companies, we call for more thorough investigations of environmental incidents, including the oil leak in Dalian and a recent toxic spill from a copper mine that spoiled a river in Fujian Province. At the same time, it should be clear that our commitment to protecting the environment does not equal environmental fundamentalism.
We expect full, public disclosures of subsequent investigative reports as well as legal action against responsible parties in each case. A goal is to raise the costs of wrongdoing to a level that equals revenues generated from related activity.
Unless violators are punished appropriately, companies that take proper measures to protect the environment in the course of their business would be victims of unfair treatment. Moreover, any company that’s lax in dealing with environmental issues is at odds with a nationwide effort to protect the environment, which has been an important trend for the 21st century.
Some environmental activists say driving economic development on oil alone is unsustainable, so they advocate reforming national energy systems to focus on renewable energy and more efficient use of electricity. In fact, renewable as well as alternative energy avenues also pose risks. For example, the production of silicon materials used in high-end solar power devices can produce toxic by-products. Unprocessed dumping of these toxic substances can tarnish the good name of so-called “clean energy.”
Therefore, enterprises across-the-board should heed every sort of environmental hazard that may arise in the course of production. Meanwhile, advanced production technologies should be adopted whenever possible.
Every disaster can teach a lesson. What happened in the Bohai Sea and the Gulf of Mexico will not stop the search for new sources of energy, and they may lead to improvements in technologies, management and legal systems. They should also encourage efforts to avoid similar blunders in the future.
The area of the Gulf oil spill is called Macondo, the name of a small fictional town in a novel called One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The name suggests uncharted territory. Now, it’s a synonym for oil spill disaster.
Some enterprises that take environmental risks may be, in effect, displaying irresponsible attitudes that reflect a line found in the novel: “Many places in the region still do not have a name on the map, and you need to point at it when referring to it.” We hope those attitudes change.