In a feat of irony worthy of Tolstoy, the Russian government is taking advantage of climate change-induced melting sea ice to push further and further into the Arctic for, you guessed it, oil. The Spiegel reports that Russia is leading the charge for oil exploration in the Arctic circle, which is supposed to contain about one-quarter of the world’s untapped reserves.
It may also be the most environmentally-damaging region to have an oil spill. Oblivious, the Kremlin has already turned an industrial port city, Severodvinsk, from an assembly site for nuclear submarines into a manufactory for massive oil platforms.
Greenpeace Russia has been pushing hard against these plans, citing worst-case scenarios involving platform spills, just one of which could cover an area twice the size of Ireland. Even worse, attempts to clean up afterwards, not terribly effective at the best of times, would be even more ineffectual in the particular geography and oceanography of the Arctic region.
Greenpeace also launched a multimedia web site as part of a campaign against Arctic drilling. Called Black Ice, it includes detailed information of Russia’s past spills. In fact, small scale spills are happening all the time, from leaking pipes to larger equipment malfunctions. One estimation from the site says that Russia produces the equivalent of seven Deepwater Horizons each and every year.
These come from 10,000 small spills, mostly in the oil fields. A spill isn’t a regrettable disaster in this country. Rather, it’s business as usual — something which absolutely will happen whenever the country goes after more oil. It’s hard to imagine anyone less qualified to muck around in the delicate Arctic ecosystem without destroying it.
One passage from the site describes the plight of the Indigenous victims of this environmental horror show:
In the long Arctic winter, oil leaks unnoticed from numerous underground pipeline ruptures. With the rising temperatures in summer, huge amounts of oil are flushed with the melt-water into the rivers. “In springtime it is the worst,” say the inhabitants of Ust’-Usa. “Then you have got oil in the water, in the air, in the food, everywhere. It stinks of oil. The spring is one of the worst seasons.”
A scant two days after the Spiegel article ran last week, Greenpeace activists boarded one of Russia’s ocean rigs. Unfurling a banner pleading, “Don’t kill the Arctic,” the six members, including chief Kumi Naidoo, faced little resistance, according to the Huffington Post.
The platform is state-owned, and statements so far indicate that work is proceeding as usual. Naidoo and his companions are prepared for an extended stay, while oil workers are not only tolerant, but friendly. It’s not exactly a stand-off. They haven’t managed to actually interrupt the operations of the rig. But it’s one more effort to make the public aware of what’s at stake. One (inevitable) slip-up, and a tremendous area, including many “protected” ecosystems within the fall-out zone, could be lost.
Can the Russian government — two decades after the Cold War and apparently still focused on being a world power through unchecked resource exploitation — realize the cost before it’s too late?
Photo credit: Greenpeace