That Massive Oil Spill in the East China Sea Keeps Getting Worse

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

More than a week ago, an Iranian oil tanker sunk in the East China Sea. Last week, authorities reported the spill had spread to cover 40 square miles. Now, that number has tripled to 128 square miles.


The oil tanker was on its way to South Korea when the collision occurred on January 6. The entire 32-person crew died, and officials have recovered only three bodies. The tanker, named Sanchi, burned for almost a week before sinking into the East China Sea, taking down 136,000 tons of crude condensate oil with it.

The crude condensate is a colorless, odorless liquid form of oil. It’s much lighter than the crude oil that runs through, say, the Dakota Access Pipeline here in the U.S. It’s used in things like jet fuel and petrol. However, the condensate oil is much more volatile and poses more unknowns in the case of a spill.

These slicks aren’t made up of the condensate oil, though. They’re coming from the diesel fuel that was powering the tanker. Three Chinese Coast Guard vessels were assessing the spill Sunday night, but they still haven’t released information on whether any of the condensate oil has leaked into the East China Sea—or how it might be impacting the sea’s marine life. The condensate oil cost National Iranian Tanker Co. $60 million in lost profit, but it could cost the company even more in environmental damages if it’s leaking.

In short: The condensate oil is sure to be no bueno.

“Gas condensates represent the ‘light ends’ of oil—that is, the low molecular weight compounds that are highly volatile and flammable, and very similar to gasoline,” Peter Hodson, a professor in the Department of Biology and School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University, told Gizmodo. “The hazards from a spill include fire and explosion (the circumstance at the site of the accident) and rapid mortality of any surface animals (marine birds and marine mammals), or fish and invertebrates just underneath the surface (top 10 meters of water).”

The sword tip squid spawns in this region of the sea, according to The Agence France-Presse. Blue crab and yellow croaker fish also winter there. Humpbacks and gray whales migrate through the East China Sea, too. Experts are advising people to avoid seafood from this region, but overfishing has largely left the East China Sea’s fish population defunct.

Chinese authorities scoped out the sunken vessel using robots Sunday to see what’s actually happening underwater. Robots can recover oil that survives these types of accidents and even plug leaks, according to Chemical & Engineering News. Officials want to retrieve the wreckage, but that could lead to another explosion. They’re still assessing the situation.

Firefighting boats attempt to put on a blaze on the oil tanker Sanchi in the East China Sea on January 10 before it sunk. Photo: AP
Firefighting boats attempt to put on a blaze on the oil tanker Sanchi in the East China Sea on January 10 before it sunk. Photo: AP

If all is clear, that’d just leave the diesel fuel. The currents in the sea are pretty active, so that’s likely to help disperse the fuel, too. Still, these two contaminants are nothing compared to what the East China Sea sees on the regular, said Katherine Mackey, an earth systems professor at the University of California at Irvine who has researched pollution in this part of the sea.


“It’s another layer of anthropogenic disturbance,” Mackey told Earther. “In the grand scheme of things—I don’t want to underplay the importance of [the spill], of course it’s terrible that a tanker would explode and that that oil would make its way into the environment—but the sheer scale of the other types of pollutions that are coming from mainland China into the marginal seas is a much, much bigger problem, I think, than a single ship.”

Mackey is talking about the consistent, large-scale, regional sources of pollution like agriculture and industry, both of which eventually bring pollutants (through runoff traveling down rivers or particles spewing into the atmosphere) to the East China Sea.


Marine life is already suffering at the hands of the algae blooms resulting from this pollution. She sees these as “the big fish to go after” and said that getting these sources of pollution under control would help restore the East China Sea.

“That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be better regulations to help ensure tankers are safe and that they’re not breaking down and leaking oil into the sea, as well,” she clarified. “Both are important; it’s just a question of the magnitude of it.”


[The Agence France-Presse]

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Not to turn Earther into Petroleum Engineering 101, but...

A nice American Petroleum Institute (API) Gravity explainer on the unbearable lightness (and heaviness) of being a crude oil:

API gravity is calculated using the specific gravity of an oil, which is nothing more than the ratio of its density to that of water (density of the oil/density of water). Specific gravity for API calculations is always determined at 60 degrees Fahrenheit. API gravity is found as follows:

API gravity = (141.5/Specific Gravity) – 131.5

Though API values do not have units, they are often referred to as degrees. So the API gravity of West Texas Intermediate is said to be 39.6 degrees. API gravity moves inversely to density, which means the denser an oil is, the lower its API gravity will be. An API of 10 is equivalent to water, which means any oil with an API above 10 will float on water while any with an API below 10 will sink.

The API gravity is used to classify oils as light, medium, heavy, or extra heavy. As the “weight” of an oil is the largest determinant of its market value, API gravity is exceptionally important. The API values for each “weight” are as follows:

Light – API > 31.1

Medium – API between 22.3 and 31.1

Heavy – API < 22.3

Extra Heavy – API < 10.0

Condensate (the stuff burning) has an API gravity of 45 and greater. The higher the API gravity number the lighter the crude oil. US crude oil is getting lighter and lighter as more and more oil is produced by fracking shale rock.

Condensate is the oily liquids knocked out near the well head (lease site).

The oil sands of Alberta (bitumen) has an API gravity less than 10. It’s considered ulta extra heavy. It has to get diluted to flow. The diluent is the light hydrocarbons and condensate produced from shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and Texas.

Here’s the total lower 48 crude production and crude production by API gravity. The blue curve is all crude oil. The rest are by increments of 10 degrees API gravity:

Here’ is the crude oil production that can be considered ultra light and condensate:

The blue, yellow and green curves are condensate. The burnt orange curve includes mostly shale oil. Thus those trains exploding several years ago. About half of US oil is now light and condensate lightness.

btw: is still up, where climate websites have been shut down. EIA is a clearing house and essential for oil trading. Where climate information from NOAA, NASA, etc doesn’t tell the story that Trump and his sociopathic supporters want to tell.