Russian pipeline plan threatens Lake Baikal

All press stories on this controversy note that the oil will be exported to China. But, as we have noted, Russia is racing with China to provide a Pacific outlet for Central Asian oil, and we suspect this is the real geopolitical imperative for this project. From the London Times, March 7:

The Russian environment agency has overridden the concerns of campaigners and scientists to approve the building of an oil pipeline within a kilometre of Lake Baikail, the world’s deepest freshwater lake.

Environmentalists immediately promised to sue the Government and asked questions of Rostekhnadzor, the environment agency that reversed an earlier decision to block the construction of the pipeline, which has huge economic importance to Russia as it will deliver oil to China, Korea and Japan.

Gennady Chegasov, a member of the regulatory panel that approved the pipeline on March 3, said today that the body had recently been packed with 34 new members after it had refused to allow the project to go ahead at an earlier meeting. President Vladimir Putin is a firm supporter of the project.

Mr Chegasov said panel members had been threatened with the sack if they blocked the pipeline and that he believed the pressure came from the Kremlin. Four pipeline experts were removed from the panel and replaced by officials with little experience of oil projects.

“The unprecedented amount of boorishness and pressure would not be possible without the government’s support,” he said. “We will appeal the result of the investigation in court… I am prepared to appear as an expert and as a witness of the violations that took place.”

The $11 billion pipeline will carry 1.6 million barrels of oil per day from the Caucasus to China and Russia’s Pacific coast. The 2,500 mile (4,000km) route will bring the pipe within 800 metres of Lake Baikal, a source of great pride in Russia because of its purity, in a region frequently beset by earthquakes.

Environmentalists have warned the Russian Government that a rupture of the pipeline could deliver thousands of tonnes of oil into the lake, home to dozens of rare species such as freshwater seals, damaging it irreparably. Transneft, the pipeline monopoly in charge of the project, concedes that a breakage could release 4,000 tonnes of oil into the lake.

Despite the heavy criticism, Transneft said today that the next goal was to seek contractors and financing for the project. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have attempted to dissuade Western companies from supporting the pipeline.

“Hopefully we will get final approval by mid-May and then can launch full construction, announce tenders to chose constructors and begin final talks on financing with Western banks,” Sergei Grigoriyev, the Vice President of Transneft told Reuters.

Until the work begins, Russian environmentalists have promised to fight the project. “The project in its current form cannot be carried out,” said Irina Maximova, a scientist who studies Lake Baikal for Russia’s Academy of Sciences. “We absolutely need to go to court.”

Roman Vazhenkov, who heads Greenpeace’s Lake Baikal project, said Russia was ignoring its obligations to the lake, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: “If it so happens that the pipeline is built and oil spills into Baikal, it will mean national shame for Russia,” he said.

More details from Environmental Data Interactive, Feb. 10:

The threat of an oil pipeline scheduled to pass within a kilometre of Siberia’s lake Baikal is mounting, following Russian government attempts to silence its own experts, who had rejected the project as environmentally unsafe.

The experts fear oil spills into lake Baikal, the world’s biggest and most bio-diverse body of freshwater.

The East Siberia – Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline is currently planned to pass through an earthquake-prone zone, as near as 800 metres from the shore of lake Baikal, further increasing the danger of oil spills from the pipeline and sparking protests from Greenpeace and other NGOs.

“We are not against the pipeline, and we recognise the economic benefits to Russia it can bring. But we want it out of the water basin of lake Baikal,” Roman Vazhenkov, Baikal campaign director for Greenpeace Russia, told edie.

Greenpeace has accused Russian government agency Rostekhnadzor of trying to silence experts it had itself commissioned to study the environmental impact of the pipeline, faced with their overwhelming rejection of the project.

In a report published on January 24, experts highlighted the “great potential danger to the lake” that the pipeline poses.

Although over 80% of the experts who produced the study pronounced themselves against the project, Rostekhnadzor has so far declined to endorse the results.

Experts said they have experienced pressure to change their decision. One of them, Genadi Chegasov, claims to have received telephone calls before a press conference telling him to “think carefully about what he will say”.

Rostekhnadzor has added a further 34 experts to the panel of 52, and extended the duration of the study for another month, “in a bid to change the conclusion of the panel,” Greenpeace believes.

Pipeline constructor Transneft assures that spills will not occur. “This is a hi-tech project and accidents there are just impossible,” Transneft Vice President Sergei Grigoryev told Interfax news agency.

But a recent spill from a Transneft-operated pipeline in the Russian region of Udmurtia put this claim into question. 32,000 tonnes of oil spilt from the pipeline on January 30-31, polluting drinking water.

In the Baikal area, local opposition to plans of passing the pipeline near the lake’s shore has been mounting over the years since the project first emerged.

“We are against the pipeline passing through the Baikal water basin, because Transneft cannot prevent an oil spill from the pipe, and will not be able to react fast enough in an emergency,” said Marina Rikhanova, co-chair of the Baikal Environmental Wave NGO in Irkutsk, Russia.

Responding to Transneft’s comments, she said: “Last year a spill on the Transneft-operated Omsk-Angarsk pipeline caused a fountain of oil to go up into the air, and the company only reacted once it had been alerted by local people.”

See our last posts on Russia, Central Asia and the regional pipeline wars.