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News Extra: Greenpeace says oil spills in Russia equivalent to six Deepwater Horizon disasters every year

17 October 2016

Greenpeace Russia, one of the only organisations to attempt to quantify the number and extent of oil leaks in that country, estimates that the Russian oil industry spills more than 4.2 million tonnes on land each year, compared with the almost 700,000 tonnes spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 by the BP-chartered rig Deepwater Horizon.

Stock image
Stock image

It should be borne in mind that Greenpeace has a record of exaggerating pollution estimates. The US Government, for example, estimates BP’s releases into the Gulf of Mexico to have been a maximum of 471,000 tonnes. Nevertheless, it is clear that vast expanses of Russia’s northern and eastern territories have been devastated by large scale oil leaks over many decades.

The effects on the environment and on local populations can be severe. In the worst contaminated areas, forests and vegetation sicken and wildlife disappears. In inhabited areas, piped drinking water is unavailable, the river fish and reindeer that many depend upon die off and the population suffers some of the worst health outcomes and largest premature death rates in the country.

Nor are these effects limited to the land. Greenpeace quotes the Russian state hydrometeorology and environmental monitoring service saying in 2011 that Siberian rivers such as the Pechora carry 500,000 tonnes of oil into the Arctic Ocean every year.

The Siberian Times interviewed Evgenia Belyakova, Arctic project coordinator for Greenpeace Russia, who said the worst affected areas were in Western Siberia, notably Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, and Nenets Autonomous Okrug, as well as the Komi Republic in Central Siberia.

The main cause of the leaks is old pipelines, of which there are many tens of thousands of kilometres. Belyakova said that her organisation estimated that it would cost 1.3 trillion roubles to replace them all, compared with total annual net profits for the industry of one trillion roubles.

This would require political will that is currently lacking. Russia’s federal environmental watchdog, Rosprirodnadzor, has limited leeway to levy fines on polluting companies and these will anyway usually be far lower than the cost of cleaning up spillages.

“The problem is that oil companies have no economic reasons to avoid oil spills. There are no mechanisms to stimulate companies to prevent oil spills. Legal mechanisms do not work effectively so we need stricter regulations,” Belyakova said.

Also, Russia’s oil and gas production provides more than half the state budget every year and at a time of low oil prices, replacing this outdated infrastructure is not a high priority, despite the overwhelmingly negative effect on the environment and local residents.

Another article on details the severe pollution problems at Rosneft oil production sites. On a visit to the Khanty-Mansi region in 2012, the campaigning website claims Russian Environment Minister Yuri Trutnev said: "The earth is practically covered in oil. It was not a question of finding contaminated areas – we had a problem finding any unpolluted ones.
There are oil rivers, oil lakes, oil ponds – all the carelessly spilt detritus from accidents."

A Guardian report in early August quoted the Russian natural resources ministry as saying that 60% of pipeline infrastructure across the country was ‘deteriorated’.

According to this report, a state energy statistics bureau told Greenpeace it had registered 11,709 pipeline breaks in Russia in 2014. In contrast, Canada reported five pipeline accidents (involving human injury) and 133 incidents involving natural gas and oil pipelines in 2014.

Some of the worst spills have been in the Komi Republic, where the Soviet Union started developing the country’s modern oil industry in the 1960s and 70s. In 1994, a pipeline break near Usinsk resulted in at least 60,000 tonnes of oil leaking into the environment, probably the largest ever spill recorded on land.

Greenpeace said that in 2014, a 10-day patrol by its volunteers discovered 201 contaminated sites, mostly from pipeline breaks, in the Usinsk oilfield.

The local production company, Lukoil-Komi, said it was investing 20bn roubles ($300m) in environmental measures and would change 370km of old pipeline in 2016, out of a 7,000km-long pipeline network in the region. The company reported only six oil spills in 2015, far fewer than the total recorded by Greenpeace.

Lukoil Komi plans to increase its production from 15.8m tonnes of oil in 2014 to 21.5m tonnes in 2019.

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