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Russian oil pipeline will wipe out the rarest cat on Earth
The Russian government has approved a plan for a pipeline that will transport oil from fields in central Siberia to the Japanese Sea. Russian environmentalists are shocked by the location chosen for the pipeline terminal: the Amur Bay in Russia뭩 biodiversity “hotspot”, Southwest Primorye. The pipeline will run through protected areas, including the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve “Kedrovaya Pad”, home to the world뭩 only remaining population of 30 Amur leopards. Selection of this route will almost certainly result in the extinction of the Amur leopard and a number of other endangered species.
Southwest Primorye is globally important for biodiversity
Southwest Primorye, in Primorski Krai (province) in the Russian Far East, is considered the biologically richest region in Russia, and is included as one of WWF뭩 Global 200 Ecoregions. It is a sliver of land bordering on North Korea and China, not far from Vladivostok. It comprises only 1/5000 of Russia’s landmass, but harbours 30% of Russia뭩 endangered species as defined in the Russian “Red List” and 15% (50 species) live only in this small region. The marine biodiversity in SW Primorye is of even higher importance; for example the local coastal waters provide important spawning grounds on which Russia뭩 large fishing industry depends. The oil transports are expected to have catastrophic effects on Russia’s only marine reserve, located nearby in the Amur Bay.
In Siberia and the Russian Arctic, where oil is being pumped up and transported, large areas have turned into black lakes and swamps. The environmental record of Russia뭩 oil industry is one of the poorest on earth. Oil spills have been reduced in recent years, but still it is not a question of if a serious oil spill would occur in the Amur Bay if the terminal were to be built there, but when. Only Russian companies will be involved in this project and the techniques they use usually do not meet western standards. Even in the Sakhalin oil project led by the Dutch-British company Shell a serious spill occurred recently. The fact that this new Russian pipeline will cost 5 times less per km than the well known Alaska pipeline does hold out much hope that it will be environmentally safe!
The Amur Bay is important for Russia뭩 economy as well as biodiversity
The only significant commercial marine cultures in Primorski Krai are located in the Amur Bay. This industry is likely to gain importance now that Russia is rapidly depleting its marine resources, a consequence of unrealistically high fishing quotas coupled with poor enforcement. Oil spills will almost certainly pollute the tourist resorts and beaches in SW Primorye, which are visited by tens of thousand of tourists annually. SW Primorye is the most popular tourist destination in Primorski Krai, because it is the most southerly and hence the warmest spot, it has the most beautiful landscapes and the broadest sand beaches, and it is located close to the main population centres. Oil spills will not only threaten local beaches, but also the shoreline near the city of Vladivostok, located on the opposite side of the Amur Bay. The Amur Bay is one of the very few spots on the Russian coast of the Japanese Sea where it is certain that any oil spilled will eventually end up on a beach. It is in fact impossible to select a terminal location that will do more damage to the environment than the slected spot!
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve will be impacted
The pipeline will run through the border zone of Kedrovaya Pad, a protected area that was recently declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, before reaching the coast.
It is very likely that an oil refinery will be built near the terminal at Bukhta Perevoznaya, at present a pristine stretch of coast. Building and operating the pipeline, terminal and refinery will lead to an influx of labourers and will further stress the fragile local ecosystems. It is almost certain that this oil transport and processing project will tip the balance for the last 30 Amur leopards, probably the rarest cat on earth, and a number of other endangered 멢ed List” species in Primorye. Recent monitoring results show that the Amur leopard population had begun to recover, thanks to the efforts of conservation NGOs which have invested more than 1.5 million dollars in Amur leopard conservation in the past 8 years.
The rarest cat in the world could be driven to extinction
The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) is the most northern of the eight leopard subspecies, and is named for the river Amur on the border between China and Russia. It is easily distinguished from other leopards by its long winter coat and large rosettes; many specialists consider it to be the most beautiful of the leopards. The Amur leopard is probably the most endangered large cat on earth with only 30 surviving in this small area of SW Primorye, between Vladivostok and the Chinese border.
Terminal decision makes no sense economically as well as environmentally
The pipeline route and terminal decision is as hard to understand on economic grounds as it is on environmental ones. Oil transfer infrastructure already exists in Primorski Krai, where substantial volumes of petroleum is now being transported by train to Nakhodka and then transferred to tankers and shipped to Japan and other destinations. Nakhodka, a large harbour north of Vladivostok, featured as the pipeline terminal location in earlier plans. The environment in Nakhodka is already polluted and there is not much nature left to waste. In contrast, the terminal location at Bukhta Perevoznaya on the Amur Bay is pristine coast; nothing but sand and sea! At Perevoznaya the oil transfer infrastructure needs to be developed from scratch.
The state-owned company “Transneft” will be in charge of the project and will own the pipeline, which aims to transport 1.6 million barrels a day. The 4,130-km pipeline will run from Taishet, Northwest of Lake Baikal, to Perevoznaya in the Pacific Primorski region. The costs of the project are estimated to be more than $10bn. Oil pipeline monopoly Transneft will work with ministers to come up with a schedule for construction by May 2005. This new pipeline means that another project – the construction of a pipeline to China – has been dropped. The embattled oil company Yukos had lobbied for this pipeline to be built.
Private, not public or national, interests are driving the pipeline route
The local Primorski Krai governor Sergei Darkin is behind the idea to build the terminal in Bukhta Perevoznaya and not in Nakhodka. When the plan to build a pipeline to Nakhodka surfaced a few years ago, Darkin immediately smelled a business opportunity. Darkin has vested business interests in the fishing industry, but he has no connection with oil transport companies. According to a former head of the local department of the federal ministry of Natural Resources, Darkin attempted to start legal procedures against Nakhodka뭩 main oil transfer company with the aim to force it into bankruptcy and get hold of the company뭩 assets. His tactic was in fact very similar to the federal government뭩 attempts to gain control over Yukos Oil. Governor Darkin and president Putin have notoriously bad relations, one assumes because president Putin disapproves of Darkin뭩 close ties with Primorski Krai Mafia structures. It was therefore not a surprise that Darkin뭩 attempts to gain control over oil transfer infrastructure in Nakhodka were frustrated by Moscow and, more concretely, by the ministry of Natural Resources. When he failed to gain a foothold in Nakhodka, Darkin retaliated by blocking plans to build the terminal there at all. According to the former Mayor of Vladivostok, Viktor Ivanovich Cherepkov, governor Darkin or his companions subsequently acquired land at Bukhta Perevoznaya and started to promote this spot as the terminal location. Cherepkov participated in the elections for Mayor of Vladivostok in the summer of 2004. During the campaign he was injured by a bomb explosion, presumably arranged by his opponent, Nikolaev, aged 30, who won the election after Cherepkov ended up in hospital. Nikolaev, who has close ties with Darkin, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in 1999 for beating a local official and threatening to kill another. His sentence has been revoked for dubious reasons and he was released from prison long before he had served his full term.
Although the pipeline is no longer intended to go to Nakhodka, it is in Moscow based media usually still referred to as the “Nakhodka” pipeline, instead of the “Perevoznaya” pipeline. Probably Transneft and Moscow based officials do not care much where on the coast of the Japanese Sea the terminal will be located. The difference between Nakhodka and Perevoznaya as terminal locations is, after all, only significant for the last 5% of the pipeline route. Another possibility is that officials are trying to keep the terminal location as quiet as possible in order to avoid criticism of the enormous ecological damage that will result from a terminal on the Amur Bay.
Russian laws as well as Russian citizens ignored in the decision-making process
Russian law makes it obligatory to consider and compare alternative project variants in instances of this type. However, other terminal locations were not assessed in the official environmental impact assessment. Information about the project was often made available to the public too late or not at all, which is another violation of Russian laws.
A public hearing was organised in July 2004 in the “White House” of the Primorski Krai administration in Vladivostok. Such a hearing, where the public can present its opinion, is obligatory under Russian law as part of a government Environmental Impact Assessment. About two hundred citizens attended and 20 experts (reserve directors, scientists, leading conservationists) made 5-minute presentations. While the arguments varied, the conclusion of each presentation was always the same: a pipeline to the Japanese Sea is needed, but do not build it to the Amur Bay! In spite of this, civil servants refused to draw up an accurate account of the hearing뭩 results. After very strong objections from the participants, finally a vague formulation was included in the protocol stating that “alternative routes and terminal locations should be considered due to the ecological consequences of a terminal on the Amur Bay at Perevoznaya”. And even this has not been done: there is no evidence to suggest that alternative terminal locations have indeed been considered after the hearing.
Meanwhile hardly a word of criticism has appeared in Russian media about the plan to build the pipeline to the Amur Bay (nor in western media for that matter). Local newspapers and television stations in Primorski Krai have close ties to Krai administration and the administration of the city of Vladivostok. The administrations have increased the budgets for media support considerably, and with Nikolaiev in place as Mayor the control has tightened. Very few journalists are willing to criticise the pipeline route and terminal location and as a result the public is completely unaware of what is going on. It is the same as with the criminal past of Vladivostok뭩 new Mayor Nikolaiev: no Russian media made any mention of it.
The media are not the only group the Putin government is seeking tight control over. The government is becoming more and more xenophobic and wants closer control over foreigners as well. Two years ago the US Peace Corps volunteers were kicked out of Russia, and at present a new law is about to be passed that makes it possible to refuse visas to foreigners that are “disrespectful” and “damage the reputation of Russia”.
International media attention is needed
It is unlikely that opposition to the proposed pipeline route will be effective under the present circumstances. Most likely the pipeline will be built according to the plan, and we will soon have to bid a sad farewell to the Amur leopard, one of the most spectacular cats on earth.