Solutions sought for Thai oil spills

Ageing equipment, rising petroleum demand and minimal fines are driving oil spills in the Gulf of Thailand, as legislators and fishers call for change
<p>A clean-up operation at Mae Ramphueng Beach, Thailand, after 47,000 tons of crude oil leaked from an undersea pipeline off the coast in January 2022 (Image: Nava Sangthong / Alamy)</p>

A clean-up operation at Mae Ramphueng Beach, Thailand, after 47,000 tons of crude oil leaked from an undersea pipeline off the coast in January 2022 (Image: Nava Sangthong / Alamy)

On 3 September 2023, Thailand experienced its latest major oil spill in the Si Racha district of Chonburi province. The leak originated from a tanker owned by Thai Oil, a subsidiary of the state-run conglomerate PTT. Initially estimated at 45,000 litres, the company later revised that to 60,000 litres.

Oil spills of this magnitude are a recurring problem In Thailand. On 25 January 2022, around 47,000 litres of crude spilled from Star Petroleum Refining’s pipeline near Map Ta Phut town in Rayong province, south of Chonburi.

Between 2015 to 2021, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources documented 146 combined instances of oil spills and “tar balls” – blobs of semi-solid oil on the ocean surface – across 23 Thai provinces. In 2022 alone, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment reported 22 oil leaks in the Gulf of Thailand, mainly near Rayong and Chonburi in eastern Thailand. That same year, Greenpeace Thailand noted that over 240 oil spills had been recorded in the country since 1973.

Fishers and marine experts warn of the harm such spills are inflicting on marine life and coastal communities.

Risk of oil spills may be rising

“I don’t believe the recent major leak in Chonburi will be the last; it’s likely to continue,” Krit Silapachai, member of parliament for Rayong from the opposition Move Forward Party, tells China Dialogue. “As petroleum companies expand production due to growing energy demand, the risks will increase. Without changes to laws and regulations, people will endure ongoing consequences.”

Silapachai, who is also deputy chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Land, Natural Resources and the Environment, has been monitoring leaks in Chonburi and Rayong. He attributes them to ageing equipment, including pipelines, loading buoys and control systems, some of which have been in service for nearly 30 years. Inspections and maintenance occur only every five years, not frequently enough for equipment nearing the end of its useful life.

Silapachai’s sentiments echo those of a 5 billion baht (US$137.5 million) lawsuit filed in January 2023 by 837 villagers and business owners against Star Petroleum Refining (SPRC), Global Chemical which is a subsidiary of PTT, and government agencies. They allege that the oil leaks off Rayong’s coast in January and February 2022 resulted from inadequate maintenance of SPRC’s 27-year-old underwater pipeline’s loading buoys, scheduled for replacement in 2025. Locals seek compensation for the impact on their livelihoods and environmental damage.

The plaintiffs also accuse the companies of mishandling the leaks, particularly through excessive use of dispersant. This reduces the appearance of surface oil but has been shown to be toxic to fish. In the February oil spill, the company initially asked for 5,000 litres of dispersant. The Pollution Control Department denied this request before ultimately dispatching an unspecified amount.

Environmental impacts

The Gulf of Thailand boasts rich biodiversity on both land and sea, with national parks like Khao Laem Ya­-Mu Koh Samet sheltering dozens of threatened animal species. Oil spills put animals at risk of suffocation and chemical poisoning, as well as damaging fur and feathers.

At sea, they form a deadly barrier for marine life. As crude oil emulsifies with seawater, it forms a suffocating film on the surface, impeding oxygen dissolution and obstructing sunlight vital for ocean organisms and plants.

Fishers like Lamom Boonyong report halting activities for at least a month post-spill due to contamination fears, often receiving inadequate compensation. Meanwhile, seafood markets, coastal restaurants and hotels suffer from decreased tourism and seafood consumption. The recovery period for marine populations like fish, crabs and squids spans years, ­with some ecosystems never fully recovering.

Oil spills also harm coral reefs, which serve as crucial habitats for countless marine species, leading to bleaching, weakened structures and ecosystem disruption. Coral reef extinction might also have food-security implications, as a significant protein source may be lost, along with a decline in tourism, says Professor Suchana Chavanich, deputy director at Chulalongkorn University’s Aquatic Resources Research Institute (ARRI).

Chavanich has been leading a team of marine experts monitoring the impact of oil spills on corals in the Gulf of Thailand. Recent test results reveal long-term alterations in coral genes due to oil pollution impairing cells and hindering cell generation.

Crab covered in oil on a beach
Oil spills can suffocate and poison marine animals (Image © Chanklang Kanthong / Greenpeace)

Dispersants exacerbate the damage. They release toxic by-products, posing risks to marine life, especially corals, and have been linked to mass marine animal deaths. Following the September 2023 Si Racha oil spill, there were calls for greater transparency in the clean-up operation, particularly on dispersant use. Chavanich warns against their usage near fish cages and sensitive resources like shellfish beds.

Solutions and restitution

In July 2013, an unprecedented 50,000 litres of oil leaked from a PTT Global Chemical pipeline near the town of Map Ta Phut in Rayong province. Before this incident, fishers regularly caught 30-40kg of prawns per day, says Boonyong, leader of the province’s fishers’ group, Pak Nam Baan Rao, a plaintiff in the 5-billion-baht lawsuits.

After the spill and subsequent use of dispersants in the clean-up, crustacean catches plummeted for two to three years, Boonyang says. “We couldn’t find any shrimp or crabs. Many other animals, like cuttlefish, also washed ashore.” Stocks took nearly a decade to recover, he says. “The catch reduces drastically after each spill; sometimes we cannot … find them at all.”

Our laws are too weak to protect the environment
Krit Silapachai, member of parliament for Rayong

Boonyong urges the government to establish a fund to support affected individuals and small businesses, in order to avoid the need for lawsuits against large companies with significant legal resources.

Silapachai highlights oil companies’ non-compliance with crude oil transportation regulations as a major contributor to severe leaks, particularly regarding the length of containment booms. These are required by law to be three times the boat’s length. In the Rayong incident, the boom measured only 800 metres, while the tanker was 800 to 1,000 metres long.

Companies violating regulations usually face fines, but these pale in comparison to the extensive damage caused by their oil spills. In the January 2022 leak, oil reached Rayong’s shores, causing environmental damage and impacting the livelihoods of residents, including fishers and tourism businesses.

Man and woman holding fishing nets
Fishers on Mae Ramphueng beach in Rayong, which was affected by the 2022 oil spill. Fish populations took nearly a decade to recover from a large spill in 2013, fishers say. (Image: Peerapon Boonyakiat / Alamy)

Currently, the maximum fine for oil spillage and causing environmental degradation is just 60,000 baht (US$1,695), alongside paying compensation to affected parties and clean-up costs. Silapachai recommends raising fines to at least 200,000 baht (US$5,650).

To mitigate the risk of leakage, companies should also invest in technology for better oil transportation control, such as computer-controlled underwater valves, he adds.

Silapachai notes that a bill is being drafted to enact stricter regulations nationwide, including a fund for compensation, cleanup and ecosystem restoration after future spills.

“Lawmakers and the government must give more importance to this maritime crisis, where our laws are too weak to protect the environment,” says Silapachai. “Otherwise, such incidents will keep on happening, and our natural resources will continue to decline.”

China Dialogue sought comment from Thai Oil on the oil spill of 3 September 2023 but has not received a reply.