Wednesday, May 5, 2010

U.S. Oil Spill Sets Off Alarm Bells in Russia

A hard hat covered in oil that was found in Louisiana waters Monday. One Russian consultant suggested stopping the leak with a nuclear blast Tuesday.

A growing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico from a huge oil spill is raising red flags among Russian environmentalists, who warned on Tuesday that local oil companies must act to avoid a similar occurrence at home.

Up to 5,000 barrels of oil have been leaking into gulf waters every day since an explosion sank a drilling rig on April 22. President Barack Obama has warned of a "potentially unprecedented" environmental disaster as the oil slick spreads toward the U.S. coastline.

The cleanup could cost BP an estimated $15 billion. The company, whose shares have plummeted by 15 percent since the blast, has blamed the rig's contractor, Transocean, for the accident. But as the oil field's operator, BP has to cover the cost of the cleanup under U.S. law.

A neglect of safety measures at Russian oil fields has put the Arctic, the Perm region and the Komi republic at particular risk of oil spills, environmentalists said.

“No companies are able to 100 percent prevent those kind of catastrophes,” said Vladimir Chuprov, a senior official with Greenpeace Russia

Since Russia has a relatively small number of drilling platforms, aging pipelines pose the main risk, environmentalists said.

“Oilmen are behaving badly, with a particularly bad attitude toward oil transportation,” said Alexei Yablokov, a leading Russian environmentalist and an adviser to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Russian oil pipelines spring 30,000 to 40,000 leaks every year, most of which go unknown to the public and media, he said.

The Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline, run by state pipeline operator Transneft, has sprung at least three oil leaks since January, according to Greenpeace Russia. One of the leaks, near the city of Lensk in the Sakha republic, spilled oil over 20,000 square meters.

Komi, near the Finnish border, suffered the most serious environmental disaster in recent years when more than 100,000 tons of oil leaked through a rusty pipeline operated by the Komineft oil company in 1994, covering 70 hectares of land. Another large oil spill occurred in the same region in 2006, this time from a leaky pipeline operated by LUKoil.

Even though 15 years have passed since the Komineft disaster, the local population is still suffering, said Chuprov of Greenpeace. “The oil is gone, but the pastures are still damaged and people still eat fish that smells of gasoline,” he said.

A LUKoil spokesman said Tuesday that he could not comment on the issue of oil spills. Komineft and Transneft officials were unavailable for immediate comment.

But Transneft has agreed to create an environmental task force in Sakha in response to the recent leaks, Alexander Morozkin, deputy speaker of the republic's legislature, told reporters last week.

The Emergency Situations Ministry, which has a task force to combat environmental disasters, declined to provide comment on its readiness to fight an oil spill similar to the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

The remote locations of Russia's oil drillers make it difficult — and prohibitively expensive — to draft a contingency plan to deal with a leak, said a senior official with a Russian consulting company that provides expertise on preventing oil spills.

“It is expensive for them to spend money on the environment,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to damage his company's relations with its clients, which include several major oil firms.

Meanwhile, Russian company Centurion Group, which operates a Japanese-made vessel designed to collect oil from the surface of the water, has offered help to U.S. authorities in the Gulf of Mexico, its head, Alexander Gorshenin, told RIA-Novosti on Tuesday.

Alexander Moskalenko, head of GCE, a St. Petersburg-based group that advises oil companies, suggested that U.S. authorities conduct an underwater nuclear explosion to bury the leaking well.

The Gulf of Mexico is also seen by Russian oil companies as a promising place to drill. Last year, state-owned Zarubezhneft signed several agreements with Cuba's Cubapetroleo to search for oil fields there.

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