Environmental controversies

Besides the region's strategic importance and natural resources, another source of tension between Russia and the outside world over the Arctic is likely to be its treatment of the environment. In the years ahead Moscow is likely to exchange bitter words not just with other governments but also with pressure groups, non-governmental organizations and public opinion.

Of the eight Arctic countries, Russia has by far the worst environmental record. Pressure groups like Greenpeace point to its particularly dire legacy in the Barents and Kara Seas, both of which were once among the world's cleanest and most undisturbed waters, boasting a very large number of seabirds, bountiful fisheries and communities of diverse and rare marine mammals. But over the past few decades, the Barents Sea, in particular, has been used as an unofficial dumping group for the spent fuel of the nuclear-powered vessels of the Northern Fleet, while anything left over has been put into storage facilities that are completely inadequate for the task.

Anyone who visits Andreeva Bay, which lies halfway between the Russian town of Severomorsk and the Norwegian border, can see at first hand just how much damage this practice has inflicted. This is the site of a huge nuclear waste facility where in recent years tons of highly radioactive waste with large amounts of uranium have been slowly leaking out of the crumbling concrete bunkers and the rusting containers that are supposed to keep it safe and secure. In recent years the local fish population has been virtually killed off by radioactive leaks, while on the mainland both the soil and the groundwater are also badly contaminated. Nobody, not even the officials in charge, suggests that the site is safe. 'The current storage facilities are in poor condition', as a local official told the BBC.49 Not surprisingly, this situation has shocked and enraged both local people and pressure groups. 'This is the biggest environmental threat facing the Murmansk region today', as Andrei Zolotkov, director of a local green group, Bellona, has said. 'The amount of radioactivity is equivalent to 93 submarine reactors or comparable with Chernobyl.'

Environmentalists are worried that, as Russia steps up its efforts to exploit the Arctic's natural resources, the Barents Sea will be at particular risk of suffering damage on a far greater scale. This is because it is already being used as a corridor through which oil and gas from western Siberia and the Timan-Pechora Basin are being moved, and as new fields come on stream, so too will tanker traffic, and the risk of an accident in the Barents Sea increases proportionately. In 2004, some 12 million tons of oil were shipped from northwest Russia through the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea and down towards Europe along the Norwegian coastline. Such cargo is expected to increase dramatically and by 2010 could amount to as much as 200 million tons every year. 'Several years ago you would hardly see a Russian tanker passing our coast', recalls Ole Berglund, a fisherman from Norway's Lofoten Islands, an archipelago that lies north of the Arctic Circle. 'Now you can spot them daily, heading to markets in Europe and North America.'50

In particular, lobby groups regard the newly constructed oil export terminal near Varandey, which opened in the summer of 2008, as a possible threat to the Arctic environment. Located 15 miles off the coast, it can handle around a quarter-million barrels every day and will eventually be connected to land-based facilities by a pipeline that would cause a massive spillage in the event of any accident. Other proposals are causing just as much alarm, including plans to build a liquefied gas plant and an oil export terminal in the Murmansk region, on the coast of the Barents Sea, that would handle between 2 and 3 million barrels of oil every day. In early 2009, the feasibility of both of these proposals was being closely considered.

Lobby groups argue that the number and gravity of spillages in the region has been seriously underreported. 'The oil industry's claim that it can prevent any negative environmental impact from their activities is false', says one campaigner. 'Since 1990 there have been more than 2,500 acute oil spills on the Norwegian shelf. Searching, drilling and transporting oil is inherently risky and the consequences for people and nature are likely to be disastrous.'51

It is possible that Russia will defuse international criticism of its environmental record by working more closely with some of the organizations that have been set up in recent years to promote dialogue and cooperation. The Barents Euro-Arctic Council, for example, was established in 1993 as a venue where its members - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the European Commission - could meet to discuss precisely these ends. An associated body, the Barents Regional Council, has even more members, which include representatives of three indigenous peoples, the Sami, the Nenets and the Vespians. Both organizations are concerned, in different ways, with protecting the environment, and strive to bring their various members together to achieve this end. In the late summer of 2008, the Russians drew up plans in conjunction with these organizations to hold a large-scale exercise to rehearse the impact of any major oil spillage in the region.52

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