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Rhetoric Versus Reality: Russia’s Environmental Aspirations Marred by Arctic Oil Spills

While Russia insists that economic development in the North won’t harm a fragile environment, Russian environmentalists note that the country’s oil companies continue to spill massive amounts of crude each year.

Written by John Thompson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
An oil spill seen at Russia's Mamontovskoye oil field in Khanty-Mansi Okrug in 2013.Ramil Sitdikov/RIA Novosti

Before attending Russia’s recent Arctic conference in Arkhangelsk last month, President Vladimir Putin flew to Franz Josef Land to inspect cleanup efforts under way in the Arctic archipelago. His government is in the process of hauling away 9,071 metric tons (10,000 tons) of abandoned oil drums and other Soviet-era waste as part of a broader cleanup program began several years ago.

This work, and Putin’s personal supervision of it, was frequently cited by Russian officials who spoke on the conference’s environmental panels. It all fit into one of the big messages being broadcast to foreign attendees: Russia’s ambitious economic development plans for the Arctic would be accompanied by rigorous environmental safeguards. After all, Russia has declared 2017 to be the “Year of Ecology.”

There wasn’t a huge appetite for debate on the subject, however, judging by how some environmentalists were turned away at the door during the conference. Nonetheless, several environmental campaigners did join the discussions. Among them was Vladimir Chuprov, the head of Greenpeace Russia’s energy program, who spoke at a panel discussion about the vast amounts of crude oil that leak from Russia’s aging, poorly maintained pipelines each year.

He noted that, by the Russian government’s own reckoning, some 1,360,777 metric tons (1.5 million tons) of oil is spilled annually. That’s about 10 million barrels, or twice the amount oil spilled during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also about 30 times the amount of spilled oil actually reported by Russia’s oil companies, according to a report prepared by Chuprov.

Most of these spills occur inland. But between 272,155 to 453,592 metric tons (300,000 to 500,000 tons) of leaked oil is believed by the Russian government to make its way into the Arctic’s rivers and ocean annually.

That could be avoided if Russia’s oil companies spent more money to upgrade and replace their oil pipelines, said Chuprov. “Companies would need to spend 10 percent of their profits to remedy this, and they don’t do that.”

Vladimir Chuprov, the head of Greenpeace Russia’s energy program, says that if Russia’s oil companies invested a small slice of their profits in their aging infrastructure they could prevent many of the country’s oil spills. (Photo Courtesy John Thompson)

That’s partly because Russian laws dealing with oil spills and other environmental pollution is “full of gaps,” said Chuprov. His report states that companies are expected to clean up a contaminated area, but such work is often haphazard and incomplete. And Russian companies don’t face punitive fines of the sort issued to BP following the Deepwater Horizon blowout – a consequence that could help deter spills in the first place.

Legislative change, however, was not a subject of discussion at the panel talk. Instead, speakers discussed a voluntary code of best practices being considered by some industrial companies that would discourage destructive measures like driving large trucks across the fragile tundra.

“If the legislation doesn’t exist or doesn’t work, we should have standards that help us,” Chuprov told the panel. As to why new, tougher environmental laws aren’t seen as a viable solution, he explained in an interview with Arctic Deeply that such changes can take a long time to enact in Russia.

“In Russia, nobody takes care of legislation,” said Chuprov. “And there are a lot of gray zones in legislation. Of course they could improve legislation, but this way is very long. To remove gray zones in Russian legislation would take decades. To change practices and force companies to fulfill legislation, it would take generations. Standards is a shorter way. It’s not obligatory, but it’s shorter. So we save time but lose thoroughness.”

As for the much-publicized efforts to clean up Franz Josef Land, Chuprov notes that the archipelago is one of Russia’s marine protected areas, a designation largely aimed at preserving polar bears and other marine mammals. Yet, while Putin told a similar Arctic conference in 2013 that he would “significantly expand” Russia’s Arctic marine protected areas, these buffer zones have actually shrunk by 12 percent over the past four years, according to Greenpeace. Offshore of Franz Josef Land, a marine area of about 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) has lost its protected status and is now included in an oil lease granted to Rosneft, the government-owned Russian oil giant. Something similar happened to the marine protected area near Wrangel Island, a nature reserve and UNESCO world heritage site.

Oil and gas leases in Russia’s Arctic waters now take up nearly six times as much area as protected areas, according to Greenpeace. That compromises the protection offered to animals like polar bears, which are known to travel long distances and “don’t know the borders,” said Chuprov.

“These two strategies, the oil and biodiversity, contradict each other,” he said. “And you can see here the priority is the oil and gas industry. Not ecology, which is what we hear all the rhetoric about here.”

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