Press Release: Russian ecologists say Gazprom is not ready to install its first offshore drilling rig in the Russian Arctic

Publish date: August 9, 2011

The installation of the Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom’s new offshore rig Prirazlomnaya in Pechora Sea and the anticipated drilling and production and transportation of oil from the Arctic shelf threaten to turn this area into a ticking ecological bomb, Russian environmentalists say as they insist that greener alternatives to drilling in the Arctic must be considered. Several Russian environmental organisations addressed the government with a statement urging to change the country’s policy in the Arctic and put a freeze on drilling works before all safety measures are in place

“The development of the Prirazlomnoye field is unacceptable due to ecological and economic risks,” said the joint statement (in Russian), signed by Greenpeace Russia, the Russian Bird Conservation Union, WWF Russia, the Socio-Ecological Union, and Bellona.

Environmentalists warn that the area will be dangerously exposed to the risk of oil spills that could ruin the local environment. They also say no efficient measures have been developed to successfully prevent or mitigate such risks.

Ecologists urge the Russian government to put a halt on the installation of the Prirazlomnaya drilling rig in Pechora Sea, in the southeast of the Barents Sea, before all safety measures are properly followed through.

Gazprom’s daughter company Gazprom neft shelf, set up in 2002 to develop offshore oil and gas fields, is planning this August to tow the ice-strengthened platform from the port of Murmansk to Pechora Sea and start drilling for oil once the rig is installed.

Gazprom hopes to yield a daily output of 19,000 tonnes of oil once production is started in Pechora Sea. The oil will be collected in tankers with a combined storage capacity of over 120,000 cubic metres, an equivalent of five days’ worth of peak output.

Year-round transportation is to be done by ice-class tankers, each with a deadweight of 70,000 tonnes, operating on a schedule of one voyage every three or four days.

However, both the installation and further operation of the rig are complicated by a multitude of adverse factors, ecologists argue.

First and foremost among these are the region’s severe weather conditions that could undermine the safety of the equipment to be used. Today’s oil and gas production equipment is not suitable to operate in the harsh Arctic climate, ecologists say. And an accident followed with a massive oil spill could prove both nearly impossible to handle and devastating to the vulnerable Arctic region.

“The world today has no successful practical experience cleaning up oil spills in ice conditions that exceed several dozen tonnes,” the joint statement said. “Should an accident happen, the total amount of oil spilled in the sea could reach 8,000 to 10,000 tonnes. The risk is compounded by the fact that the nearest emergency rescue services that are capable of conducting cleanup works at sea are located in Murmansk, almost 1,000 kilometres away from the field.”

If a spill occurs during wintertime, the first-response services will have to operate in the dark – the polar night holds for several months in this area – a major adverse factor that may affect the efficiency of cleanup works. Further complicating the cleanup will be the numerous storms and high waves prevalent in the region, the fog, and the thick ice, all affecting manoeuvrability.

Furthermore, the oil platform is to operate only some 50 to 100 kilometres away from a number of federal nature reserves, which could be exposed to the prominent risk of being heavily polluted if an accident occurs at the rig. So will the local fisheries, a traditional trade that the better part of the local population depends on for a living. 

“In light of these facts, the amount of ecological insurance, as stated in the project documentation, stands as a striking example of ill-preparedness to worst-case scenarios,” the statement said further, citing RUR 7m (roughly, $250,000) as the amount of the insured ecological risk. This, environmentalists say, “will hardly equal less than a tenth of one percent of the potential scope of damage and associated losses.”

Another point of concern is the lack of transparent information about the project. Environmentalists say the company’s official website at offers neither the project documentation on Prirazlomnoye nor any documents showing how information about the future development of the field has been presented to and shared with the public.

As they urge the government to halt the installation of the rig, the ecologists call for an open public discussion of the project to fully establish its ecological safety and economic advisability. They also insist that the platform operator make its oil spill cleanup plans available to the public.

“Today, oil and gas projects on the Arctic shelf are plagued by two major problems: Downplaying the risks and overestimating the capability to handle these risks. In these conditions, oil production on the Arctic shelf is simply unacceptable,” the joint statement says.

At the same time, environmentalists argue, Russia has at its disposal a colossal potential in both the production and efficient use of produced oil and gas on the territories it has already developed. Inefficient burning of gas at Russia’s thermal power plants costs the country a yearly 40 billion to 50 billion cubic metres of gas, even as approximately 30 billion cubic metres is needed annually to supply heat and electricity to the Russian capital, Moscow

The so-called oil recovery factor, at 30 percent, is extremely low as well, environmentalists say. If that rate were to be increased to at least 37 percent, as much as 75 million tonnes in additional output could be produced at Russia’s operating oil fields. By contrast, the yearly output expected from Prirazlomnoye is estimated at 7 million tonnes. 

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