The bitterest ecological wars in Russia rage over oil projects

Moscow. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatiana Sinitsyna)


Several years ago Russian environmentalists sued Russia's Natural Resources Ministry after it endorsed phase two of the oil and gas project Sakhalin-2 as environmentally safe. The project's operator is the Sakhalin Energy investment company, comprising three industrial corporations: Shell of the Netherlands (with more than 50% of the stock), and Japan's Mitsui and Mitsubishi. The plaintiff is a coalition of non-government organizations, combining 50 legal, environmental and other public structures, both Russian and foreign. They believe that with the state's connivance at oil companies' activities, an environmental disaster is threatening Sakhalin and the surrounding sea.

It cannot be said that the state is ignoring the ecological issues and is only interested in increasing oil production. In April 1999, a government commission vetoed a drilling program for the Chaivo-6 oil field at the Sakhalin-1 project, finding unacceptable the proposed technology of neutralizing drilling mud and the method of drilling. A loud scandal erupted, but a year later, with the program revised, the operators received approval.

In another development, experts gave the thumbs down to a project submitted by the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, dealing with its final section that butted up against the Black Sea. Consequently the planners rerouted the line as recommended. Admittedly, its laying did some damage to the environment. But since the project promised huge economic benefits it made no sense to throw it out and it was decided to reduce to a minimum its negative ecological effects. The action was completed to the letter.

Some environmental conflicts are resolved through mutual understandings. Environmentalists have demanded that Sakhalin-2 operators move a new drilling rig 12 miles off the coast (instead of the designed 10 miles), arguing that it was in dangerous proximity to the habitat of gray whales, a rare species. The oil companies agreed to shift the underwater pipeline.

But environmentalists demanded more, but that was too burdensome for the investors financially. They could not give up a deposit with 600 million tons of oil and 700 billion cubic meters of gas, or abandon a mammoth international project that had already absorbed $6 billion. The environmental lobby is now pressing its attack, while the companies are putting up stiff resistance. The economic might of the project, the need for energy resources and the international commitments are not letting things stand still. Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 have already started supplying energy to Japan.

A new environmental scandal is brewing near Lake Baikal, a unique natural entity. Transneft, the company that plans to build the world's longest oil pipeline (4,000 kilometers) from East Siberia to the Pacific, is doing survey work near Baikal shores, however the planned route is to pass 140 kilometers to the north. Pleading that the terrain in those remote localities is unsuitable, the company is acting as it thinks best, havin chosen a more amenable and cost-effective territory. The Federal

Environmental Monitoring Service, or Rosprirodnadzor, is demanding that the company respect the law on Baikal's protection zone and is threatening to sue it. Greenpeace describes the project as extremely dangerous for the entire Baikal region, since the pipe will pass through seismic areas and some nature preserves. And again there is no way out. If Transneft starts cutting tunnels through the mountains where indicated, the oil will be worth its weight in gold.Economically, as well as politically, the project is very attractive.

  "Environmentally safe projects simply do not exist, so the concept of 'pure production' is not quite proper to use," believes Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, an economist and environmentalist. "It is quite easy to find fault with any economic project, pick holes in it and set the ball rolling for discussion." In the

scientist's view, the inevitable conflict between nature and human economic activities should be resolved by setting ecological losses against economic returns to help heal the wounds inflicted on the environment.

"As any pious wish, the idea of nature protection may assume extreme and even grotesque forms, be exploited for certain ends, and occasionally be in somebody's personal interests," stressed Danilov-Danilyan. "But more often than not an environmental protest is born spontaneously, fueled by emotions." He is echoed by another scientist - environmentalist Mikhail Flint, Doctor of Biology and Deputy Director of the Russian Academy of

Sciences' Oceanology Institute: "Over-focused environmental orientation may be the result of political heat being turned on. Green parties nowadays exist everywhere. And they are at the converging point of ecology and politics," he says. "But let the Greens sit down at the negotiating table and ask what they want, 99% of them will be unable to formulate their demands. An enhanced environmental consciousness married with a lack of proper ecological knowledge creates a vicious circle," Flint says with conviction.

Doctor of Economics Yury Alexandrov, chief researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies, claims that if all objections to every system and project of oil transportation and export are put together, it will emerge that existing pipelines must be closed down, and no new ones built. "An ecological examination of all projects, a realistic plan for all environmental measures and full account of environmental safety expenses involved are a must," the scientist stresses.

"But there is the flip side - 'ecological extremism.' If we subscribe to it, then we will have to concede that economic and ecological requirements are mutually antagonistic in the Russian oil industry. Will Russia benefit from this?"