Russian oil exploration risks high environmental impactOctober 2013
Russia can expect environmental bodies to protest that its planned extraction of oil and gas in the Arctic off the Siberian coast would do enormous harm to the area’s thriving polar bear and walrus populations.
Rosneft, Russia’s biggest publicly traded oil company, has already begun seismic explorations in the Laptev Sea stretch of the Arctic Ocean. Huge deposits are virtually certain to be found, and large-scale production could begin during the next 20 years.
However, the fear is that exploration, drilling and industrial activity will unsettle the polar bears and walruses and reduce their food supply. Many of the animals have been forced ashore anyway because climate change has dramatically shrunk the Arctic ice cap.
In addition, conservationists think the growth of an oil industry in the Arctic will encourage more hunting and add to the destabilisation of the balance of nature.
At the same time, WWF, the international conservation NGO, is worried that if there should be an oil spill in the Arctic it would be hard to control, and would cause further damage to the natural habitat and poison the animals.
WWF believes alternative sustainable sources, not oil, should provide the world’s energy, but argues for safeguards if fossil fuels are to be extracted.
Igor Chestin, WWF’s chief executive in Russia, said: “Before the real oil and gas projects develop in the area we need to know that there is sufficient knowledge of the conservation needs here, which would allow us to put in the necessary protection.”
Rod Downie, head of WWF UK’s marine and polar programme, said his organisation was likely to lobby directly Rosneft and any other companies that become involved. He emphasised: “We think the risk and potential impacts are irresponsible.”
The environmentalists now see yet more threats to the area’s wildlife and ecosystem from the China-to-Europe commercial shipping in the seas north of Siberia. This traffic has become far busier thanks to the melting of the ice cap, increasing from four ships in 2010 to 400 projected this year.
WWF’s challenge coincides with the Russian storming of the Greenpeace International icebreaker Arctic Sunrise in the Pechora Sea about 1,500 miles to the west.
Russian commandoes wearing balaclavas dropped by ropes from a helicopter on to the ship have arrested the 30 Greenpeace activists on board.
Greenpeace is protesting about attempts by the Russian Gazprom company to drill for oil in that stretch of sea, which contains three nature reserves protected by Russian law.
The Russians are threatening a piracy prosecution. Greenpeace rejects piracy claims as the charge does cannot be applied to peaceful actions. The Russian foreign ministry said: “The intruders’ actions … had the outward signs of extremist activity that can lead to people’s deaths.”
Russia also summoned the Dutch ambassador demanding a halt to such protests – the ship is Netherlands-registered.
Greenpeace official Jasper Teulings said that as the ship was outside territorial waters the raid lacked justification. He said: “This looks like a retrospective attempt to create that justification and avoid embarrassment.”
Gazprom already has a platform in the planned drilling area. Four Greenpeace protesters who scaled the platform earlier have already been arrested.
Ben Ayliffe, head of Greenpeace International’s Arctic oil campaign, responded: “It’s clear that oil companies receive special protection from the Russian authorities, who seem more interested in silencing peaceful activists than protecting the Arctic from reckless companies like Gazprom.”
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