Russian-Norwegian demarcation agreement sparks fresh controversy between Russian environmentalists and authorities

(Foto: Tone Foss Aspevoll/Bellona)

Publish date: September 15, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

MURMANSK – Monday’s appearance in European Parliament by Bellona President Frederic Hauge has provoked positive support from the Russian environmental community and elicited criticism from a Murmansk Region legislator, who has invited Bellona for further discussions at the region’s legislative assembly.

At issue is Wednesday’s signing of the demarcation agreement between Russian and Norwegian waters in the Arctic – a border that has been under dispute since 1970, according to Russian press reports – and the potential can of worms this may open in terms of dealing with a major oil rush to the area. Bellona also views the signing of the agreement as an opportunity to guide Russian decision-making over each country’s newly acquired territories.

The signing of the agreement has also brought up lingering nuclear issues in need of a solution on Russia’s Arctic Kola Peninsula, said Hauge in Brussels, prompting a strong statement from the Murmansk Regional Parliament, indicating that it did not share Hauge’s sentiments.

On Monday September 13 in Brussels, two days before the signing of the demarcation agreement between the seas of Norway and Russia, Bellona President Frederic Hauge spoke before the European Parliament with the demand that a moratorium be placed on oil and gas development in the Arctic.

Other Russian environmental organisations have also sent an open letter to the government asking it to more closely examine plans for oil exploration in the Arctic Seas, and more specifically to revisit the so-called state environmental expertise, a high-level examination of possible environmental impacts the drilling of the Shtokman oil and condensate field could bring. Environmentalist have been dissatisfied with the conclusions of the state environmental expertise, as it fails to take into account how Shtokman Development AG would deal with any major accidents.

The state environmental expertise also fails to take into account the Shtokman project’s possible impact on climate change and marine life.

Speaking at the 9th Conference of Artic Parliamentarians, which consists of the United States, Canada, Russia, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway, Hauge said of the demarcation agreement’s signing that, “This is a opportunity to explain to European, American and Russian politicians the tragic consequences of turning the Artic in to a playground for the oil industry might bring.”

Hauge called for an immediate moratorium on oil and gas drilling projects in the Arctic.

The Arctic is already befouled by chemical and radioactive waste brought to it by wind and sea currents, as well as by shipping pollution. Other problems threatening the Artic region are sharply rising temperatures. High temperatures are destroying the ecological balance of Arctic seas, and acidification of the waters rises as they are forced to gobble up more CO2.

In addition, there are constant accidents and leaks at oil and gas production facilities, which the oil industry claims operate completely cleanly, Hauge said.  

“The accident with the ***Deepwater Horizon showed how disastrously poorly the oil industry controls its operations.  It is madness to let the oil industry into the Arctic,” he said.

The Shtokman project

On Wednesday, with the singing of the demarcation agreement, Murmansk Region NGOs that are part of the Northern Coalition publicised an open letter that calls on Norway and Russia to safeguard, if not increase the richness of the Barents Sea, which includes it’s the variety of its habitats and its coastal populations.

The demarcation agreement delineates the borders of the sea areas Between Norway and Russia in the Barents and White Seas. The document also specifies cooperative development of resources on the territory formerly known as the “grey zone,” an area which has been debated since 1970. Since then, Russia and Norway have observed a moratorium on oil and gas development in this 175 square kilometre area.

“Arctic nature is already experiencing a serious anthropogenic impact attributable in the first place to climate change and the global movement of polluting substances,” read the statement from the Northern coalition.

“In such circumstances, any gas and oil activities could be fatal to the environment of the region. Citing the example the Shtokman project we see how complex and risky are the plans for its realisation in Arctic conditions. Despite this, the Shtokman Development AG company, in which Norway’s Statoil Hydro holds a share, is neglecting issues of environmental safety and the opinion of the public at large,” the statement continued.  

The other two major shareholders in Shtokman AG are France’s Total, and Russia’s state gas monopoly Gazprom.

The environmentalists sent a letter to the Russia Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear oversight, or Rostkhnadzor, asking the service to deal with violations that took place during the completion of the environmental expertise.

Instead of October 14, the date established by Rostekhnadzor itself as the finishing date for the state environmental expertise, the expertise was completed with a positive nod from the service’s commission on September 3. At this, the Shtokman project is called unique in it complexity because hydrocarbon recovery will be conducted on Russia’s continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean first.

“Conducting a state environmental expertise in such a short time (about 30 days) on such an unprecedented project makes it impossible to carefully review all of the existing risks and potential negative impacts,” wrote the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in its letter to Rostekhnadzor. “Moreover, such a rapid completion of the state environmental expertise did not accommodate the possibility of completing a public environmental impact study. After all, the right of the public to speak up about the project is enshrined by law.”  

According to environmentalists, the Shtokman project is being hurried by lowering the safety standards for its completion. As an example, the principle defects that were publicly discussed in Shtokman Development AG’s engineering documentation represented in the state environmental expertise have not been removed. For one, the evaluation of an accidental spill of gas condensate or emission of methane emission and its potential impact on the environment was not properly conducted. And research on the acoustic impact on marine life, particularly marine mammals was not completely researched.

This is why Bellona is calling for a moratorium on all offshore oil and gas development projects in the Barents Sea – including the Shtokman project. 

Nuclear and radiation dangers – and rankled politicians

In Brussels on Monday, Bellona’s Hauge devoted much of his attention to the Murmansk Region. Specifically, he noted the highly unsatisfactory conditions in the sphere of nuclear and radiological safety in the region, and issued his criticism of issues related to developing nuclear energy. He pointed out the significant risks of using nuclear powered icebreakers to guide ships through the Northern Sea Passage.

Hauge’s words did not go unnoticed by Murmansk Region politicians, according to a statement its Regional Parliament released Wednesday.

“In his rebuttal [to Hauge], Yevgeny Nikora, representative of the Murmansk Regional Parliament, declared his disagreement with the position taken by Bellona’s President,” read the statement.

“[Nikora] noted the significantly improving situation of nuclear and radiological dangers on the territory of the Kola polar region. [Nikora] also reminded those in attendance of the implemented and working programme on nuclear and radiological safety currently in effect at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, [the nuclear icebreaker port] Atomflot’s installations and the Ministry of Defence,” the press release continued.

Bellona holds a high opinion of the efforts of Russia authorities and international organisations to lift the Kola Peninsula’s nuclear installations up to a higher standard of safety. But some of the most important issues in this area still have not been resolved, such as the nuclear waste storage ship Lepse, and the Russian naval nuclear dumping ground at Andreyeva Bay, located only a few dozen kilometres from the Norwegian border.

Additionally two of the most dangerous first generation nuclear reactors continue to operate at Kola NPP – reactors that must be decommissioned as soon as possible.

And it must not be forgotten that sunken nuclear installations litter the floor of the Artic seas, and nothing is being done to secure their safety.

Bellona is against the use of nuclear energy on the Kola Peninsula based on the theory that it could lead to a Chernobyl level disaster. No nation in the world has solved the issue of safely storing radioactive waste, and the use of nuclear energy is not economically justified, and also carries with it the risk of proliferation of nuclear material.

The Russian icebreaker fleet and the Northern Sea Route  

While speaking of using nuclear icebreakers along the Northern Sea Route during the icy seasons of the year, Nikora underscored “its important significance and lack of options.” Bellona categorically disagrees with this. Bellona is against active use of the Northern Sea Route, all the more so with the use of nuclear powered icebreakers.

One reason is that there is a lack of any kind of infrastructure to deal with any emergencies on icebreakers or the ships they are escorting along the Northern Sea Route.  Further, there have been no studies on the environmental impact that increased shipping traffic along the Arctic route might bring.

Bellona is certain that the use of nuclear icebreakers in a PR move with no economic foundation. A sure sign that the use of nuclear icebreakers is totally unprofitable is the refusal of Norisk Nikel, the giant icebound and northerly lying nickel plant, to use them.

As such, environmentalists are convinced that the Artic environment is being subjected to enormous threats for the sake of a PR stunt.

In conclusion, Bellona readily accepts the invitation of Region Nikora to visit the Murmansk Regional Parliament. Bellona has already tried unsuccessfully for years to get relations up and running with the administration of the Murmansk Region. Therefore, the invitation to participate in a cooperative relationship issued by the region’s legislative authorities is a sign of striving toward a dialogue with non-governmental organisations, which Bellona can only welcome.