Oil companies driving ecological catastrophe in Russia

Spilled oil near Usinsk, Russia. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace, 2012

Spilled oil near Usinsk, Russia. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace, 2012

Russia’s lax regulation of its fossil fuel industry is pushing the country toward a crisis point as regular spills and leaks are poisoning drinking water, killing livestock, and fouling rivers.

The pollution problem in Russia has reached staggering proportions. According to a recently released Greenpeace report, over ten thousand oil spills occur each year in the country due to ruptured pipelines.

Experts estimate that these spills pour some 4.5 million tons of oil products into the environment per year—representing nearly 1% of all oil extracted in Russia. Meanwhile, the consequences of an increasingly out-of-control industry are on display across the country.

In May, an oil storage facility near the Russian town of Usinsk caught fire, unleashing dramatic plumes of jet-black smoke. The disaster there was doubly notable for occurring at the same site as a record-breaking oil spill that flushed crude into a tributary if the Kolva River and killed livestock that ate oil-covered grass. Oil tainted waters then flowed into the Pechora River, and ultimately into the Arctic Ocean.

In the aftermath of the spill, residents of the region estimated it to only represent a fraction of the oil spilled since extraction operations began there in 1974.

All over Russia, similar crises have been playing out for years, and in some cases, decades. Oil companies regularly avoid reporting spills to the government and instead perform makeshift reclamation operations, disguising environmental damages but not remedying them. Sergey Donskoy, the country’s Minister of Natural Resources, has publicly stated that his agency lacks reliable information on oil spills and does not collect data on the volume of oil lost and its resulting damage to the environment.

In February, Donskoy announced new plans to monitor spills using satellites.

While high-tech monitoring of Russia’s pipelines will be a welcome development, the most direct way to address the relentless plague of spills may well be old-fashioned government oversight. More than 97% of spills occur because of preventable pipeline degradation, which in turn is connected to infrastructure maintenance.

Greenpeace’s study found that pipelines are commonly used for as long as twice their operational lifespan and are insufficiently examined by government inspectors.

Meanwhile, fines for polluters often are little more than symbolic gestures. When government fines are issued, they often amount to little more than a slap on the wrist. They also go unpaid: in 2013 Lukoil was fined 615 million rubles (US$ 17 million), but successfully appealed to have the fine dropped.

The Russian government’s appalling treatment of oil spills is just one symptom of a radically pro-industry regime. Russian oil output rose for the fifth straight year in 2013, reaching 10.508 million barrels per day. This figure represents a near return to Soviet-era peak output, which reached its zenith in 1987 with 11.4 million barrels were filled each day.

The fossil fuel industry in Russia is still on track to continue its breakneck pace—and is seeking out new reserves to exploit. On Saturday, Exxonmobil and the Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil producer, made headlines by beginning a US$ 700 million project in the Russian Arctic.

The companies’ move to drill in the ecologically sensitive region ignored opposition from international environmental group and scientists, who have showed that a spill in the Arctic would have massive negative ramifications for the region.

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