Threat to Baikal Diverted
In a dramatic televised action in April, Russian President V. V. Putin diverted a potential threat to Lake Baikal, a UN World Heritage site. He appeared to vindicate the NGO’s who had spearheaded nationwide protests and flummoxed Transneft, the state controlled pipeline monopoly which had already mobilized to start construction and planned to take the hi-tech pipeline within 800 metres of the world’s oldest and largest body of fresh water.
"If there is the tiniest danger of polluting Baikal, then, taking into account future generations, we must do everything not simply to minimize this danger but to eliminate it," Mr. Putin said.
In a move reminiscent of Tsar Alexander II drawing the route of the Moscow-St Petersburg rail line, the Russian President stepped up to a map during a meeting of regional governors, Transneft officials and state experts in Tomsk, boldly drawing a line with a marker. "The pipeline system we are talking about must go along the watershed, north of Lake Baikal's watershed," he said.
The move was an effective rebuke to Transneft and its President Semyon Vainshtok, who had expounded on the safety aspects of the pipeline earlier in the meeting. Mr Putin had then called on leading geologist Nikolai Lavyorov, vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who said that rerouting the pipeline at least 40 kilometers from the lake's shoreline would ensure that if there were an accident, pollutants would head north, away from the lake.
In what was obviously a pre-planned action, Mr. Putin suddenly stepped forward in front of the TV cameras and, using a marker pen to indicate the spot on the map, declared: "The route will go to the north of the area pointed to by academician Lavyorov. Let's consider it a done deal."
Mr. Putin’s intervention is in stark contrast to the Soviet attitude in 1957, when the government planned a paper plant for the shores of Lake Baikal, and overrode the protests by local scientists, writers and fishermen. That popular action ignited an environmental movement that was a direct forebear of all Soviet activism to come. The plant was built and it continues to pour waste into the lake and bilious smoke into the air above. Yet Baikal’s unique ecosystem copes, with microbes eating the waste.
The $11.5 billion pipeline with a projected shipping capacity of 80 million tons of crude per year is slated to supply oil from Eastern Siberia to the Pacific Ocean, increasing exports to China, Japan and South Korea. It is about 2,565 miles (4,130 kilometers) long, more than three times longer than the Alaska pipeline. It is planned to be built in two stages. The first stretch of 2,390 kilometers will run from Taishet in Siberia to Skovorodino close to the Chinese border in the Amur region, and the second portion will run from Skovorodino to the Pacific coast. The first stretch has now been lengthened by Mr Putin’s decision. Simply taking the pipeline 40 km north of the planned route, would thrust it into harsh mountainous terrain, difficult to built a pipeline through and difficult to maintain. In fact Transneft announced late May it was moving the pipeline 400 kms north in southern Yakutia.
Transeft’s Vainshtok had vociferously defended the original route and decried an alternative through Yakutia. His most detailed exposition was in a recent interview in the official state newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. He told the paper “Transneft will take all the requisite precautions for Baikal to stay safe. For instance, the average thickness of the pipe we use across Russia is 9 mm, whereas in the vicinity of Baikal it is 27 mm. The construction norms require us to put in a gate valve every 32 km, and each valve costs $180,000. Near Baikal valves will be put in every 5 km. The ‘pipe inside a pipe’ technology is used at water crossings all along the Baikal”.
Asked about a Yakutia route he said, “Do you know the price of a feasibility study? It’s over $200 mln. Each time we look into changing the right-of-way we are facing major outlay. This is one thing. Secondly, we had a proposal by the Yakutia President Vyacheslav Shtyrov to lay the pipe across Yakutia. I understand his stance as that of the head of the republic. It is very convenient to have the pipeline laid across his territory. We have assessed his proposal and came to the conclusion that the pipeline in this right-of-way is economically impracticable.”
”Without going into technicalities,” he said “a modern pipeline is a complex engineering facility, which extensively uses automation, telemechanics, information technology, communications, etc. to secure its reliability, operational and environmental safety,” he said.
The prestigious World Wildlife Fund and the highly effective Greenpeace NGO didn’t doubt these precautions would be effective under normal operating conditions. Instead they based their protests on possible disruption of the pipeline due to seismic disturbances. 80 percent of the flora and fauna, including the Nerpa seal and Omul fish, in the lake are found nowhere else on the planet. It is in a geological rift which is marginally widening, and deepening every year. The geology makes the region prone to seismic disturbances.
A protest vigil in Irkutsk, the town closest to the Lake, lasted two months and demonstrations of support stretched across Russia before the Tomsk meeting. Vainshtok accused Greenpeace of being a ‘tool’ of foreign interests who oppose Russia directly supplying Far East markets. It was a theme Mr. Putin echoed last July, "As soon as we start doing something, one of the arguments in the attacks against us is always environmental problems," he said then.
Mr. Putin suggested in Tomsk that construction of the pipeline be carried out from the East and West so that two sections could be joined later, making the Baikal section the last to be built. Greenpeace has cautioned the company might just wait for the public protests to settle down and then keep to the old project and construct the pipeline 800 meters from Baikal. The NGO promised to monitor developments and maintain the pressure to keep the oil pipeline out of the borders of the Baikal drainage area.