As global hydrocarbon resources on shore steadily decline, there has been an increase in offshore hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation. Some estimates suggest that there are over 6,000 offshore oil and gas installations worldwide. Notwithstanding simmering disputes over the territorial sovereignty and associated maritime zones of a number of island groups in the South China Sea and adjacent East Asian seas, exploration for offshore oil and gas resources under national and joint development regimes has become a prominent feature of these areas. It is estimated that there are now over 1,390 offshore oil and gas installations in the South China Sea and East Asian seas. This raises the question of how well prepared states bordering the South China Sea and the broader East Asian seas are to respond to a major oil spill from an offshore installation in the region. In recent years, two spectacular oil spills from offshore installations have occurred, one off the northwest shelf of western Australia from the Montara platform in 2009, and the other in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010. Leaking oil from those incidents over a number of months caused major damage to the coastlines of the states with jurisdiction over the drilling as well as those of neighbouring states. The damage to the marine resources and biodiversity of the surrounding waters was extensive, and industries dependent on the environmental integrity and health of these waters suffered commensurately. In addition, the costs of cleaning up such widespread and injurious oil spills were huge.
Almost a third of global crude oil and half of global liquefied natural gas (LNG) passes through the South China Sea annually. China is also the world’s largest oil importer. All these factors contribute to the high potential for an oil or gas spill disaster in the South China Sea and the broader East Asian seas. This article will examine the international law and policy framework for oil pollution preparedness and response and the extent to which it has been implemented in the South China Sea and broader East Asian seas. It will then analyse a recent global initiative that has been taken to improve the preparedness of the region to address a significant oil or gas spill in the South China Sea and broader East Asian seas.