BEIJING — Oil that spewed from an offshore drilling rig in northeastern China for two weeks last month has spread over 320 square miles, government officials acknowledged Tuesday, amid uproar over why it took so long for fishermen, local residents and environmental groups to be informed of the spill.
News of the accident emerged in late June on the microblogging site Sina Weibo and was not confirmed by the state-owned operator until Friday. The government sought to play down the significance of the leak, saying the environmental repercussions were likely insignificant and blaming the rig’s Western operator.
“There is no visible floating oil on the sea, and the leak is now under control,” said a spokesman for the State Oceanic Administration, according to a transcript of a news conference posted on its website, although another official acknowledged that a small slick could be seen from the two platforms involved in the accident.
Officials at the agency said ConocoPhillips China, a subsidiary of the Houston-based energy giant that operates the rigs with a Chinese state-owned company, “should take the blame” for the accident, which occurred in the mouth of the Bohai Sea, a largely enclosed body of water that touches on three provinces and the city of Tianjin.
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, an official at the oceanic agency’s Beihai branch said the minimum fine would be about $30,000, a figure that could rise depending on the extent of the economic and ecological damage.
ConocoPhillips officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday, but in an earlier emailed statement, the company said it was still investigating the scope of the leak and that there had been no reported impact on wildlife, fishing or shipping activities.
The company owns a 49 percent stake in the venture, Penglai 19-3, which is the country’s largest offshore oil discovery, reportedly producing 150,000 barrels a day. It operates the rig with China’s National Offshore Oil Corp.
In recent days, several Chinese media outlets have reported die-offs among fish farmed in ocean enclosures, but such accounts could not be verified Tuesday.
According to the oceanic agency’s website, a leak was first detected June 4 and then again June 17. It said the spills occurred during the drilling process, when water is forced into the earth’s crust. By June 19, the problem was under control, the agency said, and by Monday, 40 cubic meters of oily water had been removed from the sea.
Yang Fuqiang, a senior adviser on climate and energy at the Beijing offices of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group based in the United States, said that even if the environmental damage turned out to be minimal, the long delay in publicizing the accident erodes public trust in the government and its state-run energy companies.