After the ConocoPhillips oil leak in Bohai Bay, controversy surrounds who can sue for compensation.
According to the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), the oil spill was the “worst oceanic environmental accident in Chinese history”.
It is estimated that the spill has cost the fishing sector between 150 million and 170 million yuan.
George Storaker is president of ConocoPhillips China, the operator of the leaking oilfield. He said that the company “has not received any claims on compensation issues so far”.
ConocoPhillips China is facing legal action from all sides. Government authorities, environmental societies and groups of fishermen affected by the spill are all considering suing the company.
Regardless of the difficulties faced, Chinese law experts hope the cases could provide a landmark in cases of environmental pollution, according to China Daily.
As the supervising maritime authority, SOA has been preparing a lawsuit for ecological compensation on behalf of China. It has recruited a team of legal advisers to file the case.
"Seeking compensation for damage caused by the oil spill is a long-term, huge and complicated task,” Liu Cigui, head of SOA told Xinhua.
"Any company that damages China’s marine environment will pay a price,” Liu said.
The authority may be in a favorable position to generate reliable evaluation reports and to gather evidence.
However, the marine environmental watchdog could still find itself at a disadvantage. One issue is the existing lack of severe penalties for causing environmental pollution.
Under current law, the maximum penalty for marine pollution is probably 200,000 yuan, which is far less than the damage caused by the contamination. But the amount has not been determined yet.
On an individual level, hundreds of seafood farmers in Hebei province have hired a law firm to file a lawsuit case against ConocoPhillips China.
The law firm said the farmers’ losses were estimated at between 500,000 yuan and one million yuan each.
Nonetheless, fishermen will face difficulties taking the oil giant to court. Problems include collecting evidence and making an assessment of the damage.
Environmental organizations are also urging the oil giant to shoulder legal responsibility.
On July, 11 organizations, including Friends of Nature, jointly released a public letter, demanding the SOA draft a request for compensation.
Ma Jun from the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-governmental organization, admitted their concerns that legal costs would be quite high.
According to China National Radio, Beijing lawyer Jia Fangyi submitted a private lawsuit in the name of public interest to three courts in Hainan, Shandong, and Tianjin on August 9.
Jia demanded that the two oil companies, ConocoPhillips China and China National Offshore Oil Corporation, establish a 10 billion yuan (US$1.56 billion) compensation fund to restore the local ecology.
"All the marine resources in China belong to 1.3 billion Chinese citizens,” he claimed.
There are few similar precedents in China. In the US, citizens and NGOs can also sue for compensation for environmental pollution. Compensation covers the cost of cleaning up, marine life protection and losses to businesses.
The US government fined BP a hefty $20 billion for last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.