UPDATE: Russian environmental laws offer inadequate protection from oil disasters from the Arctic to the Black Sea

Publish date: November 14, 2007

MURMANSK - The quickening tempo of oil and gas efforts in the Barents Sea region due to the prospective development of Russia’s Arctic shelf for drilling is driving up environmental risks to the already vulnerable landscape, and current Russian legislation is ill equipped to handle the inevitable accidents that will come with the black gold rush.

Russia’s northern regions must be prepared for these risks. A crucial insurance policy against total catastrophes is effective legislation guaranteeing environmental security within the gas and oil industries – especially for work in the Arctic areas, where it has little experience or expertise – ensuring nature preservation and effecting social environmental control.

Protection against oil spills and effective legislation for dealing with and preventing them are an especially hot topic in the wake of the catastrophic oil spill in the Kerch Strait between Russia’s Black Sea and Sea of Azov on Sunday, when a decrepit and outdated tanker was split in half by high waves.

Final estimates as to how much oil was spilled are still inconclusive. Initial estimates on Monday from Russia’s Emergency Services Ministry put the magnitude of the spill at probably 560,000 million gallons, or 172,300 tons, of oil. By Tuesday, they had downgraded that amount in a telephone interview with Bellona Web to 7,300 tons, or 23,725 gallons.

However other news agencies, primarily Russia’s Interfax and RIA Novosti said, quoting the same officials, that the spill totaled 2,000 tons, or 6,500 gallons.

The figures given to Bellona Web and Russian news agencies are suspect in light of statements by Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Russian state environmental safety watchdog Rosprirodnadzor. According to Mitvol, some 10,000 tons of oil had already been scoured off of Black Sea beaches and that some 1,500 tons, or 4,875 gallons, was still in the water. Clean up costs for the disaster have been estimated by Mitvol to be $12.4 billion.

Evidence of bad legislation floating in the Black Sea
Fierce winds were still hampering clean up efforts in the region following the killer storm that also sank another 11 ships. Some 30,000 sea birds are estimated to have died as a result of the spill. Leading Russian and international environmentalists said the oil spill was triggered by years of official negligence and legislative ineptitude that allowed oil transport ships to use outdated and inadequate equipment.

Bellona’s Russian oil advisor Kristin Jørgensen decried Russian practices of allowing outmoded single hull oil tankers troll Russian waters, while international norms require Russian tankers traversing international seas to be of a more contemporary dual hull design, which lowers the chances of a serious breach.

Viktor Petrov of the Kola Wildlife Protection Centre said the Russian government is not prepared to an adequate level to provide its citizens with environmental safety.

“The normative demands in the field of environmental safety were insufficiently represented in last year’s legislation, but now these demands have been entirely destroyed,” he said.

Further legislation was proposed by environmentalist Sergei Golubchikov in Moscow. "Russia needs a law that regulates sea pollution, and the Kerch Strait should be declared an especially vulnerable sea zone," Golubchikov said, according to the Associated Press.

Economics of bad environmental policy
The lapses in legislation as well as the decrepitude of much of Russia’ native oil industry are already leaving a detrimental economic impact as spills and accidents pile up. The Black Sea port of Sochi, as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, had been promised $12 billion in development funding by President Vladimir Putin before Sunday’s catastrophe, and it is as yet unknown where clean up funding is going to come from. As it stands, the estimated $12.4 billion in estimated clean up expenses cancels out the funding promised for the Olymics.

The high winds that have thus far prevented salvages teams in the Black Sea from launching efforts to even begin sweeping oil off the surface of the water will allow patches of the slick residue to settle on the seabed, where it can remain for years.

Yelena Vavila, an expert with the regional environmental monitoring agency, warned about "increased concentration of oil in the water for at least five years," AP reported.

A polluted sea is hardly an incentive for potential investors in the 2014 games, which the Kremlin has touted as regional economic boon.

To that end, Putin dispatched his new prime minister, Viktor Zubkov – who many analysts tip to be Putin’s heir-apparent in the coming presidential elections – to the area of the spill.

Citing absolutely no governmental or environmental assessments of the disaster scene, Zubkov declared on state-run television that most of the oil cold be cleaned off the shoreline within three weeks and that all oil that has spilled into the Black Sea would be gone within 45 days.

Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Russian state environmental safety watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, has lamely suggested tossing up a damn in the Kerch Strait to prevent oil from setting in the Sea of Azov.

We have a real chance to save the ecosystem of the Sea of Azov," he was quoted by AP as saying. However, Russia and Ukraine have a long-running argument over which country controls what parts of the waterway. Ukraine has objected in the past to Russian plans to build a similar dam, calling it an attempt to strengthen Moscow’s claim to a disputed island.

New environmental protection law brush public opinion aside
In accordance with the new edition of the law on environmental protection, said Bellona Lawyer Olga Krivonos, construction and use of oil and gas drilling facilities, refineries, transport and storage facilities and oil and gas sales can only take place after approval of engineering schematics by the government. In its previous iteration, however, the law required environmental impact studies – and this has been tossed out of the current legislation.

“The (approval of only engineering schematics) is not ecological, and, consequently, the participation of the citizenry in the decision making process is whittled down to a minimum,” Krivonos told Bellona Web. “Today, federal laws establish only general formulations, occasionally declarative.”

Natalya Belkina, the oil and gas coordinator for the Russian environmental group Nature and Youth underscored that the environment is not only under threat from the industry when there is an accident.

More to cry over than spilled oil

“It is critical to smash the stereotype that oil and gas industry environmental problems come up only in accident situations resulting in spills,” she told Bellona Web.

“The large scale of the oil and gas industry’s development is a danger at all levels of field development, oil product transport, and the construction of shore installations.”

The restoration of environmental impact studies and guarantees of transparency for public access to the decision making process was, therefore, one of the key demands of Murmansk-area non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that participated in the Northern Coalition conference entitled “Transport of Oil and Gas and the Protection of Nature in Conditions of Changing Environmental Preservation Legislation and Social Control.”

Northern Coalition pleads for a public voice

During the two-day conference of the Northern Coalition – a partnership of environmental NGOs in the Barents Sea region – participants discussed the environmental responsibility of oil drillers under these changing legislative conditions and possibilities for public and societal input in the process.

“Holding such a conference illustrated the total indifference of the oil and gas industry in dialogue with NGOs, having totally ignored the invitations to participate in the conference,” Oleg Sutkaytis of the Barents Sea office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “The experience of environmental NGOs shows that companies are only interested in public opinion when they need to observe procedure in the context of environmental impact evaluations, which is a purely ceremonial consultation with the public.”

The Northern Coalition spoke out in favor of public environmental control and demands observation of environmental protection legislation by the oil and gas complex, Olga Perova, the coalition’s coordinator said.

The purpose of the Northern Coalition’s partnership is to miminise risks and damage to the environment as a result of oil speculation and development of oil fields for drilling as the oil and gas industry expands at a rapid pace in Russia to optimise steady profits. The Northern Coalition’s membership included Bellona-Murmansk, the Kola Environmental Coordinating Centre Geya, The Kola Wildlife Protection Centre, and the WWF.

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