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July 31, 2013

Thai Offshore Oil Spill Prompts Warning from Environmentalists, Engineers

by Ron Corben

Environmentalists and engineers say the Thai government needs to improve the safety of the country's offshore oil industry after a rig in the Gulf of Thailand released tens of thousands of liters of oil that has since washed up on popular beaches. As The spill has triggered wider concerns as foreign and local companies look to step up investments in offshore oil in the region.
 
Thailand is still weighing the cost five days after after 50,000 liters of oil leaked into the Gulf of Thailand while being transferred from an offshore platform some 20 kilometers out to sea.
 
The eight kilometer long spill has already reached the resort island of Koh Samet and is moving towards the Thai mainland near Rayong province.

Thailand’s Marine Department has lodged a police complaint against the pipeline operator while Thai officials called for efforts to clean up the slick, with experts called in from Singapore to assist.

Pipeline operator PTT Global Chemical said the leak was quickly closed off and efforts are now focused on the cleanup. The operator is a subsidiary of Thailand’s largest fossil fuel group, the state-linked PTT, with global assets of over $45 billion.

Although PTT has assured resort operators on Koh Samet the slick will be cleaned up within days, Thailand's tourism and fisheries industries are still calculating the damage. The cost to the tourism industry along has been estimated at $70 million.

But Sutichai Kumworachai, an analyst with Kim Eng Securities, said it may take weeks before the full cost is known and he expects the government to now toughen regulations governing the oil industry. “What I expect is that in the future the regulation for this matter might be more strict than what we have right now, but I believe the operator or oil refiner would be OK to do so [comply],” Eng noted.

Sutichai said companies may be required to set aside emergency funds for such incidents and pay close attention to the longer term environmental impact.

Environmental group, Greenpeace South East Asia program manager, Ply Pirom, is skeptical of PTT claims that the oil clean-up will be quick and is calling for more details on the degree of damage to the environment. “From what happened we can say that this is a good example and alarming to the Thai Government that we are not ready for such an incident.   Especially if you look at PTT Company which is one of the leading companies in Thailand and globally also, they are seen to not be really well-prepared for such an incident,” said Pirom.

Greenpeace has called on the Thai government to review its energy policy and dependence on fossil fuels and end oil drilling and exploration in the Gulf of Thailand.

Environmental Engineering Association of Thailand (EEAT) president Prasert Tapaneeyangkul, said oil companies need to address procedural shortcomings and limit human errors. “Engineering mitigation measures are very important, they have to be very seriously abided by otherwise this (crisis) will occur again and again. Most of the time it’s not from the engineering design but by human error so that is one of the most important things that this human error first of all must be eliminated,” he stated.

In 2009, an oil spill and gas leak by a PTT subsidiary in the Montara oil field in the Timor Sea took 74 days to plug. It is considered one of Australia’s worst oil disasters.