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Oil pipeline that could kill lake Baikal edges closer
24 August 2005 Gośka Romanowicz

This article is part of Goska’s journalism masters thesis, written during our first visit to Baikal in July 2005. It is the reason why we chose to end this cycle journey on the shores of the Baikal, a symbol of Siberia’s wild nature - incredibly vast, rich and fragile at the same time. For an update on the pipeline affair see "Oil threat bypasses Baikal to re-emerge further east"

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Lake Baikal contains 20% of the world’s freshwater reserves

The men in camouflage gear appeared in the forest surrounding Severobaikalsk in early spring. By April, geologists and cartographers filled the few hotels in the isolated town on the shore of Siberia’s lake Baikal. Nobody knew what was going on until Sergey Shapkhaev, an ecology professor from nearby Ulan Ude, went into the forest to investigate. He found workers preparing the route for Russia’s biggest pipeline, expected to pump 60mn tonnes of oil a year to Asian markets – along the earthquake-prone northern coast of Lake Baikal.

The idea of passing the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline by the Baikal shore was controversial from the start. Ecologists say an oil spill could kill all life in the lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996. While Japan and China compete for the right to East Siberian oil, environmentalists and local inhabitants fight to deflect its path away from the lake. But the threat of the pipeline is closing in. The men in camouflage, employed by Transneft, the Russian oil transport giant behind the project, have now completed surveying work and construction is about to begin.

Russians have long considered Lake Baikal a national treasure. The peninsula of Shaman Rock is where many visitors get their first view of the lake, which is a subject of Russian poems, songs and legends. As the clear blue expanse opens out from a perfect half-moon cove, framed by a string of prayer flags stretched into an arch by the wind, Baikal measures up to its myth. Here, it seems obvious why indigenous Buryats call lake Baikal the “Holy Sea.”

The clarity of the water is not a deception. Despite decades of abuse inflicted by communist industry, water straight from the lake is still good to drink, and is even sold in bottles. For evolutionary scientists, Baikal is the “Galapagos of Russia”: home to over one and a half thousand species, most of them not to be found anywhere else on earth, it is the most bio-diverse lake in the world. For geologists, Baikal is unique as the world’s oldest and deepest lake, containing twenty per cent of the globe’s total freshwater. But for Transneft, the Russian para-statal pipeline monopoly behind the $16bn ESPO pipeline project, the lake is a headache.

Sergey Shapkhaev can claim an important contribution to Transneft’s troubles. As director of the Buryat Regional Union for Baikal, he has been at the forefront of a fight to deflect the pipeline away from the Baikal water basin. The softly spoken ecology professor of indigenous Siberian origin more resembles a Tibetan monk than a Russian. “If these plants and animals die, we can’t reintroduce them like if it was any other lake. They’re gone forever,” he patiently explains. “And the oil pipeline will break. The earthquakes are very strong here. If the construction of the pipeline goes ahead as planned, it’s just a matter of time before the oil ends up in the lake.”

Knowing our Russia...

Seismic activity is written into the lake’s history. The Baikal rift, a fracture of the earth’s crust that forms the lakebed, hasn’t settled down since it formed 25 million years ago. Severe quakes are felt every 10 years or so. An earthquake in 1959 caused the lake’s floor to drop by 10 metres. This is why Sergey Shapkhaev was shocked to discover surveying work had started on a pipeline passing as close as 500 metres from the shore.

Local people share environmentalists’ fears. “How do they plan to build it? We’ve got mountains here, earthquakes, avalanches, extreme weather, snow three quarters of the year,” says Maria Moshkina, a resident of Severobaikalsk, the town on the northern Baikal coast where Sergey Shapkhaev discovered that surveying work had started. Alexandr Fiedorenko of Severobaikalsk regional administration agrees: “We have such temperatures here, you see it’s plus 30 degrees now, but in the winter it’ll be minus 40, 50. And knowing our Russia, I just don’t believe that there won’t be an accident,” he says.

Statistics suggest he is right. Although Transneft estimates the probability of accidents on the lakeside section of the pipeline at one per decade, past experience suggests otherwise. The company’s nearest pipeline experienced a serious emergency spill every 18 months for the last ten years, despite the fact that it does not pass through seismically active areas.

A sudden change of mind?

The threat of the pipeline has been hanging over lake Baikal for three years now, but it came into sharp focus with Sergey Shapkaev’s discovery in Severobaikalsk. This was not where the pipeline was supposed to be, even by Transneft’s own accounts. The company had agreed to built it 80 to 100 kilometres north of the lake last year, submitted that version of the project for the state “Environmental Impact Assessment” required by the law, and got the go-ahead.

But sometime at the beginning of this year, Transneft secretly changed the route to pass as close as 500 metres to the water. The Environmental Impact Assessment forgotten, the company has now completed surveying along the new route and announced that construction is about to start. Formally, the change makes the project illegal. Transneft does not have the required permission from the Environment Agency for the new route, and a regional court in Khabarovsk has officially ruled it unlawful. But that doesn’t mean it will not go ahead, given Russia’s ineffective government structures and corrupt courts.

Although the Russian state Environment Agency has publicly condemned the change of route, it hasn’t taken any concrete steps to avert it, only threatened it will ’talk’ to Transneft. Meanwhile the corporation, itself a largely state-controlled creature, is ignoring both the courts and the Environment Agency. It is backed by president Putin, who has shown strong support for the ESPO pipeline, calling it a “project of national importance” and condemning environmental organisations for standing in the way of Russia’s economic development.

The new lakeside itinerary means oil will flow straight into Lake Baikal in the event of a spill. The minimum time between a fracture and oil entering the water is reduced from 100 hours to 20 minutes by the change of route, says Sergey Shapkhaev. “The designers have promised to include emergency measures - monitoring posts, emergency helicopters... It’s a joke. In twenty minutes, they won’t get the pilots out of bed,” he says. In the winter, slow leaks could have oil seeping out into the lake for months, hidden under Siberia’s snows until the summer thaw.

Asked how long oil pollution could affect the lake, he says: “I’m afraid it could be forever. We know from Transneft’s own calculations that 8000 tonnes of oil could spill if the pipeline bursts. No-one ever dreamt of even 100 tonnes of oil spilling into Baikal.” The lake’s organisms are very closely interdependent, and require very particular habitats. If the whole system is chemically disturbed, it will very likely never go back to equilibrium, he says.

If the current plans are realised, there is significant danger of oil spills, says Roman Vazhenkov, Baikal programme director for Greenpeace Russia. “The pipeline would cut across all the mountain streams and rivers flowing into the northern part of the lake. We can now say that, if this pipeline is constructed, Northern Baikal is lost,” he says, commenting on the new route.

Technical problem

The main reason Transneft gives for the change of route is the possibility of transporting materials along the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway, which passes along the lake, and which would greatly reduce construction costs. The BAM railway is practically the only piece of infrastructure in a vast region of wild taiga.

So did Transneft think nobody would notice if they laid the pipeline along the Baikal coast? The Russian Environment Agency did notice the Severobaikalsk affair. The Agency’s deputy, Oleg Mitvol, condemned the change in June, saying that “we have environmental legislation and we will demand it is obeyed... There should be a pipeline but it should not spoil the world heritage of Lake Baikal.” But many environmentalists say the Agency’s comments are far too general. “What this comment means, I don’t know,” says Jennifer Sutton, a Briton living in Russia since the 70s who heads the NGO Baikal Environmental Wave. Whatever the reason for the change of route, Transneft has acted as if nothing had happened, and went on to present its new Baikal-side pipeline project at public hearings and presentations.

The longer the better

So do economic grounds oblige Transneft to choose the Baikal-side route? In fact, its economic viability has been disputed. Some scientists argue that Siberia’s big oil fields lie much further north, so the lakeside route is not the most profitable investment at all. “But Transneft makes a profit on the pipeline, not on the petrol. They will need to construct ‘tributaries’ to the pipeline, connecting it to the oil fields in the North. This will make the total length of pipe to be laid longer,” says Sergey Shapkhaev.

A route which passes much further North, through Yakutia, has even been worked out by scientists from the Novosibirsk Institute of Economy and Industrial Management. They found it twice as economically effective as the Baikal-side variant. “But the pipeline would be shorter along this route, and Transneft would make less money,” says environmental NGO worker and geologist Vladimir Bielogolovov.

Transneft is Russia’s pipeline monopoly, in which the Russian government owns 75 per cent of the shares. The first, Russian sector of the pipeline would therefore be paid for largely from Russian tax-payers money. Foreign investors would only pay for the segment of the pipeline delivering oil to China, or to ports from which it would be shipped to Japan. “But no-one is asking whether people in Russia will live better or worse without this pipeline, for whichever route. They’re using public money again. They wasted so much already on the BAM railway, and no one uses it now. Who benefits from this?” asks Mr Bielogolovov, referring to “the other Trans-Siberian railway” – the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway project that ended up costing an extraordinary US$ 25bn but ended up an economic failure.

‘You want to eat today’

But there are inhabitants of lake Baikal’s northern coast who do want the pipeline. Unemployment in this area is very high, and Transneft promises jobs and development. “Construction and maintenance of the Eastern Siberia the Pacific Ocean pipeline system will breathe new life, diversify and change extremely negative demographic and migration processes in these back lands, characterized over the recent 15 years by great population outflow,” the company claims.

At the end of July, Vladimir Putin called the ESPO pipeline a project of national importance. He likened it to the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway, which had been christened the “Hero Project of the Century” at the time of its construction in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

In reality, the BAM provided work for the duration of its construction, but in the long term only created a string of ghost towns plagued by unemployment and alcoholism along its route. “There was enough work for one generation, but not for the second. There’s no work for young people now,” says Maria Moshkina, a teacher who lives in Severobaikalsk, which is perhaps the least economically depressed of the BAM towns. There is now little traffic along the BAM line, and the railway’s phenomenal costs will most likely never be returned.

But many people who stayed on in the new towns after working on the construction of the BAM railway are not conscious of this, or perhaps don’t want to be. A large Soviet sign in one of Severobaikalsk’s empty streets still reads “Glory to the builders of the BAM!”

Opponents of the ESPO pipeline argue that, just like the BAM, it would provide temporary employment and leave the area undeveloped, while potentially destroying other means of survival. “The population of that whole area is very dependent on fish, whether it is to eat or to sell. Oil spills would affect fish stock enormously,” says Sergey Shapkhaev. “Studies have shown fish is an important part of the family budget, especially in the old villages that existed before the BAM, such as the Evenk [Siberian indigenous tribe] villages,” he says. Some railway workers will also lose jobs as oil transport switches to the pipeline, he says.

Maria Moshkina, a biologist by training, wrote a protest letter to Vladimir Putin together with other Severobaikalsk residents when she learned about the surveying work near her town from Sergey Shapkhaev. She shows me a copy of the letter, and reads out: “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich ... We, the residents of Severobaikalsk ...are very anxious about the plans of the company Transneft to build the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline through this territory of Lake Baikal UNESCO World Heritage Site ... without first discussing the project with us.”

But many local people are desperate for work, temporary or otherwise. “Many people here live from day to day. Short-term work is enough for them. They have no choice. We have a saying in Russia - when you’re hungry, you want to eat today,” says Maria Moshkina. She says that food really is a problem for some.

To Oleg Krasnov, 29, who has no steady income, work on the pipeline sounds like a godsend. “My wife sells clothes brought from China in the market. But after the stall is paid there’s nothing left. Construction work is real work,” he says.

Some locals see other benefits in the project. “The pipeline? Of course I’m for the pipeline. I’ll drill a hole in it. It’s money,” says Andrei, 35, at the railway station bar. This is less of a joke than it may seem. Holes drilled for poaching oil are one of the main causes of accidents in Russia’s oil pipelines. “You know, people have already started digging tunnels to get to the [underground] pipeline, and they haven’t even started building it yet,” says Alexandr Fiedorenko of the Severobaikalsk regional administration.

But Transneft has promised the pipeline will rejuvenate the economy of the region. As well as temporary work in construction, the pipeline would bring permanent positions in safety monitoring and a small refinery. Exactly how many new jobs would be created is difficult to establish, however, as the company has not been specific. Alexandr Fiedorenko is dubious. “What work? It won’t be anywhere near enough to resolve the problem of unemployment. Anyway, officially no one told us anything yet. What are we talking about,” he says.

Information control

Whatever local residents’ opinions may be, Transneft did not consult them about the change of route for the pipeline. The residents of Severobaikalsk, who had seen Transneft’s workers preparing the route near their town since the winter, officially learned from their local newspaper on July 27 that “the earlier project of passing the ESPO pipeline further north of lake Baikal has been rejected, in view of the impassability of the area and a lack of technical and economic resources.”

Regional powers received a similar treatment. When Transneft presented its new project to regional representatives in the town of Irkutsk, 500 km south across the Baikal, in August, Anatoliy Malevski, the region’s environmental protection director, remarked that this was a completely new project and was now unacceptable. The company’s ecological safety chief Elena Radchenko responded by saying that “construction and exploitation of the pipeline along the route which passes further from the Baikal is impossible.” Regional powers have, in effect, little power over the trans-continental pipeline project supported by Vladimir Putin, says Vladimir Bielogolovov. “In Russia, there is no law, there is only the president,” he says, only half joking.

Transneft is obliged by law to give the public free access to information about the project through special information centres, and let citizens and NGOs air their concerns at public hearings. But locals and NGOs complain that, despite appearances, the public is denied information and the chance to have a say. “We have had very little information here. The local press is owned by the administration, and the administration supports any pipeline project that comes their way,” says Maria Moshkina.

The pipeline information centre nearest to Severobaikalsk is in Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia - several days’ journey away. But even once in Ulan Ude, finding room 25A of the Buryat Scientific Centre, where the information centre is located, is a challenge. The lone receptionist in the empty hall has never heard of it. She says room 25A does not exist. When I eventually find it in a new corridor and enter, I am confronted with a large filing cabinet and two big men. “Copying and photography is prohibited,” reads a notice, which they don’t hesitate to point out. “No, you cannot take a picture of the notice either.” The ESPO pipeline documentation in the filing cabinet would take a week to get through.

“Transneft refuses information, and uses very cunning methods to do so. For example, there were NGOs especially set up by Transneft, which they included in negotiations and then said they had listened to the public’s concerns,” says Jennifer Sutton, the founder and director of the Irkutsk NGO Baikal Environmental Wave. She says that public hearings consist of Transneft talking while everyone else listens, turning the hearing into an “advertising campaign for the company.”

“Their first public hearing in Angarsk was an absolute scream. They talked about the Baltic Sea terminal [a past pipeline project], there was a film of Putin cutting the ribbon... Nothing to do with the pipeline to be built here in Siberia. Then they said they had ‘taken into account all environmental and social factors’,” says Ms Sutton.

But more and more people around the Baikal are discontent about the lack of attention Transneft pays them. Ecological organisations have always been a strong force here. An epidemic of the nerpa [Baikal seal] in 1983, when a pollution-linked disease killed thousands of animals, caused a wave of protests. “Now it’s the pipeline, it is also mobilising people,” says Sergey Shapkhaev. ”In Russia, things tend to build up for a long time. People are patient for now but that can end.”

It took a court case for Sergey Shapkhaev to gain the right to photography in the Transneft information centre, but he can now read the documents contained in the filing cabinet I didn’t have a chance to get through. He is tired of playing cat-and-mouse with the company. “But no-one can say exactly how much oil is needed to kill Baikal forever. And I don’t want to find out,” he says.

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