Cracks in the Façade? An Oil Spill Adds to Russia’s Arctic Woes

City of Norilsk [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
by Marc Lanteigne

Since early 2020, the Russian Federation had already been facing multiple challenges to its efforts in opening up Siberia and the Russian Far East (RFE) to expanded economic activity, particularly in the energy sector, given the region’s oil and gas reserves. The collapse of global fossil fuel prices and the ongoing financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have created significant obstacles, despite the determination of the Vladimir Putin government to push forward.

These development plans have significant political and well as financial dimensions, as illustrated by merger plans announced in May this year by two Russian Arctic districts, namely the Arkhangelsk Oblast (Архангельская область) and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (Ненецкий автономный округ) in the country’s northwest, which was prompted by the economic strains both governments are now facing. A referendum on the merger was later postponed [in Russian] until 2021 in the wake of protests and serious concerns about whether the union would erode Nenets cultural and political autonomy.

Moscow has viewed its Arctic lands as an essential element in the modernisation of the Russian economy, as the Arctic Ocean as a whole opens up to greater development, and has been optimistic about the opening of the Northern Sea Route for longer periods during the year, which would facilitate the export of local liquefied natural gas, including to China. However, an environmental disaster in Siberia late last month has illustrated the considerable risks created by increased industrialisation facing the region.

Last week, an estimated twenty thousand (US) tonnes of diesel oil leaked into the Ambarnaya (Амбарная) River near the Siberian city of Norilsk (Норильск), turning the waterway red and affecting an area of approximately 350km2. The incident was later blamed on the erosion of the surrounding permafrost which led to the collapse of the oil’s holding tank. The facilities where the accident occurred were operated by the Norilsk and Taimyr Energy Company, a division of the firm Norilsk Nickel, a company which had experienced previous problems with fuel spills.

Concerns about the short- and long-term effects on the regional environment prompted the Russian president to declare a state of emergency while efforts were quickly begun [in Russian] to contain the damage, including via the use of booms to prevent any further spreading of contamination. On 5 June, it was announced the spread of the leaked fuel had finally been contained in all directions. The entire cleanup is likely to be a more complicated affair, with initial damage estimates totalling six billion rubles or US$76 million, but eventual costs may be much higher. Russia’s Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (Росгидромет) has already reported many nearby creeks and rivers being saturated with the pollutants. The watchdog agency also reported that it had issued previous warnings to the facility in 2017-8 about safety violations at the site.

President Putin was highly critical of the initial local responses to the spill, noting the amount of time (approximately two days) between the incident and the moment it was officially reported to the public. The Russian government also announced an inquiry into the affair, with the data collection expected to be completed by the end of this month, with at least one official of the plant later arrested. Moscow also expressed gratitude to the US government after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered his country’s services to assist with the clean-up process.

The spill took place at a time when the Siberian region was bracing for another unusually warm spring and summer, which has contributed to a repeat of last year’s wave of wildfires. It has also been hypothesised that ‘zombie fires’ may have been active in parts of Siberia throughout the past winter, fuelled by underground layers of peat, and could act as catalysts for new forest fires as the weather gets warmer over the next two months.

[Photo by Forest Simon via Unsplash]
Abnormally high temperatures were recorded in May of this year in Siberia and other parts of the Arctic, including Alaska. These conditions are creating a cascade effect on local permafrost, (defined as any type of terrain which has been frozen for at least two years and often far longer). The total amount of permafrost found in the northern hemisphere is estimated at 23 million km2, (by contrast, the area of Russia, the largest country in the world, is seventeen million km2). However, that number has been dropping steadily due to warmer conditions in much of the Arctic and sub-Arctic.

As a 2019 report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP, a Working Group within the Arctic Council), explained, the decrease of permafrost is affecting local environments and water tables, as well as threatening human settlement and infrastructure, and the livelihoods of Arctic populations including Indigenous persons. The city of Norilsk (population 178,000) is largely built on permafrost, and may also be at risk of infrastructure damage due to climate change. Melting permafrost also releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, including methane, which would further drive up average temperatures in the Arctic as elsewhere in the world.

The Norilsk incident is the latest in a series of recent events which have affected the environment of Siberia, in addition to the resumption of wildfires and clusters of coronavirus outbreaks in regional cities and towns, including a recent spike in new cases in Arkhangelsk. Last week, a runaway wellhead fire was reported in the Yarakta oil field (Ярактинском месторождении), north of the Siberian city of Irkutsk, with plans announced to call in the Russian military to use explosives to extinguish the flames by starving them of oxygen. Each of these crises in the Russian Arctic have demonstrated the emerging disconnect in the region between economic ambitions and environmental realities.