Sunday's Black Sea storm was admittedly one of the worst on record. But nature's ferocity may pale next to human recklessness as an explanation for what Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov described as "the biggest mass sinking of ships" in the country's history.
"You can't blame everything on the weather," noted Mr. Zubkov, as he opened an inquiry into the disaster, in which an aged river tanker spewed at least 560,000 gallons of fuel oil in the narrow Strait of Kerch – nearly 10 times the size of San Francisco's Nov. 7 spill.
As Russia's oil exports ramp up amid spiking global prices that reached almost $100 per barrel last week, officials say ecological protection is improving. But environmentalists and critics of the burgeoningenergy industry say standards are applied selectively and warn that Russia's oil exports travel through ill-maintained pipelines, some of which are four decades old. Much domestic transport, meanwhile, operates far below world standards, they contend.
"It is the goal of the Russian government to export as much oil as possible while the prices are high and, since they are obeying official policy, the oil companies often feel they can ignore safety concerns with impunity," says Vladimir Slivyak, head of Ecodefense, an independent environmental watchdog based in Kaliningrad. "Nobody thinks about safety, everybody thinks about money," he says.
The sunken Russian oil tanker, the Volganeft-139, was a riverboat not equipped for operation on the open sea and should never have been there, experts say. The captain of that and several other ships set off into the narrow and dangerous Strait of Kerch in defiance of weather warnings, for which they may face legal action. Three bodies have washed ashore, five men are missing, and up to 30,000 birds have perished in the wake of the shipwrecks and resultant oil spill.
Better standards, but fairly applied?
Oleg Mitvol, deputy chief of Russia's official environmental protection agency, says he can't comment on alleged violations in the mass sinking of ships at Kerch since the matter is under criminal investigation but insists that ecological protection is improving in Russia's oil industry.
"Companies didn't think about environmental safety at all until we started inspecting them stringently," he says. He cites his recent inspection of the private LukOil's operations in the Arctic territory of Komi, site of a 1994 accident in which 33.6 million gallons of oil flooded into the fragile tundra, where he forced the company to pledge about $3 billion for new safety technology. "Russian companies are learning to work to world standards," he says.
But critics argue that privately owned companies are disproportionately targeted for environmental checks. "LukOil spends fives times more on environmental protection than the state-owned Rosneft does," says Alexei Gruzdev, an analyst with Kortes, a Moscow-based energy consultancy. "The system is contradictory and far from ideal."
Foreign-owned oil firms can find themselves subject to crippling environmental reviews. A year ago, as the state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom maneuvered to take over Royal Dutch Shell's control of the Sakhalin-2 Pacific coast oil-and-gas development, Mr. Mitvol arrived with a team of inspectors and declared that Shell had caused up to $50 billion in damage to the delicate local ecosystem. Within weeks, Shell sold its shares in the operation to Gazprom at a steep discount.
"If relations between a company and the authorities are good, inspectors tend not to find any problems," says Mikhail Krutikhin, an analyst with RusEnergy, an independent consultancy. "If relations are bad, all kinds of troubles can crop up."
22,000 pipeline bursts per year
Most of Russia's oil exports move through the vast 50,000-km pipeline network of Transneft, the state-owned pipeline monopoly, which offers little public information about its operations. But according to Regnum, a Russian online business news service, the company suffers an average of about 10 serious leaks a year, including a 14,000-gallon spill last year on the Europe-bound Druzhba-1 pipeline.
Experts say the real nightmare is the million or so kilometers of local trunk pipelines that feed the Transneft system. "Almost all of these are obsolete, and there are spillages on a daily basis," says Alexei Kiselyov, a campaigner with Greenpeace Russia. Figures published in the World Bank's monthly World Finance Review suggest that oil pipeline bursts grew from about 19,000 in 2002 to more than 22,000 in 2005.
"Newly built facilities tend to be OK, but these are a tiny percentage of the total," says Mr. Kisleyov. "The majority are in terrible shape."
Russia is planning a vast expansion of its export network, including a 2,500-mile pipeline across eastern Siberia that would supply oil to China, east Asia, and the US.
But environmentalists say their biggest concern is planned expansion of oil and gas exploration in the untapped Arctic, particularly if Moscow's pending claim for economic control over nearly half a million square miles around the North Pole is approved by the United Nations. Russia estimates the region may contain up to 10 billion tons of petroleum.
"We're extremely worried about attempts to open the Arctic, which is still a unique and untouched ecosystem," says Mr. Slivyak. "The safety record of Russian oil and gas companies is very low, and there's little indication that they learn from incidents like what happened in Kerch this week. I fear that when they start exploring in the far north, we can expect the same kind of carelessness."