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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 November 2005, 18:49 GMT
Energy boom alarms Russian Greens
By Leonid Ragozin
BBCRussian.com, Moscow

Greenpeace protest in Russia
Greens fear reckless exploitation of Russia's vast natural resources

"Do you know what is the brightest place on Earth in satellite images?" asks Aleksey Yablokov, leader of the new Green Russia party.

"Not Los Angeles, not Tokyo. It's western Siberia."

The vast expanses of this sparsely populated region are lit by the flares of associated gas burned at oil wells.

"I once flew there by night - the view was unforgettable. But these flares killed not millions, but billions of migrating birds", says Mr Yablokov, one of Russia's leading biologists and a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Former US Vice-President Al Gore called Siberian oil flares one of the main causes of global warming, in his book Earth In The Balance.

The number of oil wells where gas is being burned has fallen considerably with the arrival of modern oil extraction technology in the post-Soviet era, Mr Yablokov admits.

But he estimates that about 20,000 such flares are still lighting up the taiga (virgin forest).

Economic boom

Gas and oil reserves are Russia's main source of income, but many people believe they are also the country's main curse.

The revenues, they claim, cannot be compared with the long-term damage the oil industry inflicts on the environment and people's health.

But oil workers retort that the small but tangible economic boom that has improved living standards in recent years is entirely due to their pursuit of "black gold".

Should we jeopardise that success by talking about some "vague" threats, they ask.

Eight time zones away from Moscow, the island of Sakhalin, once described by writer Anton Chekhov as the most miserable place on Earth, has become a magnet for international consortia. They are pursuing some of the most ambitious projects in oil industry history.

They include Sakhalin Energy, created by Royal Dutch Shell, Mitsubishi and Mitsui.

"We are going to stay on Sakhalin for a long time. Therefore people's health and safety are our key priorities," says the company's spokesman Ivan Chernyakhovsky.

But local environmentalists seem unconvinced.

"The project is very controversial. It has a great impact on the environment and biological resources of Sakhalin," says Dmitry Lisitsyn, head of Sakhalin Environmental Watch, a local NGO.

Risk to wildlife

The symbol of the "green crusade" on Sakhalin is the endangered population of grey whales, whose habitat is the ocean off Sakhalin.

Sakhalin Energy biologists argue there is no link between the decrease in their numbers and the oil extraction on the sea shelf.

The Greens say there is, but they admit that whales are just an eye-catching symbol and much greater problems lie elsewhere.

Russian forest
Greenpeace wants tough controls to stop illegal logging in Russia
They say the pipelines currently being constructed on Sakhalin's coast cross 600 pristine salmon-breeding rivers.

Fish are very choosy about where to breed - a slight change in the quality of water and they may never come back, leaving locals without their main source of food.

But what alarms them most is the threat of oil leaks that can change the local environment once and forever.

"We extract 1.5m tons of oil a year and the leaks have never been greater than two litres a year. This is a record low," Mr Chernyakhovsky insists.

But the Greens point to sad examples elsewhere in Russia.

According to Greenpeace, five to 10 million tons of oil leaks into soil and water in Russia each year.

Mr Yablokov says that is "a few times" more than in the rest of the world.

Seismic activity

Oil extracted on Sakhalin is delivered to consumers in Asia and the US by tanker - another hazard, according to environmentalists, who point to the treacherous and stormy waters of the North Pacific.

Sakhalin quake
The 1995 earthquake flattened most of Neftegorsk
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef near Alaska, tipping 40,000 tons of oil into the sea. The oil film stretched for hundreds of kilometres.

More alarmingly, Sakhalin is located in the same tectonic zone as Japan, and has had its share of catastrophic earthquakes.

One of them buried 2,000 people alive in the ruins of apartment blocks in the town of Neftegorsk 10 years ago.

The adjacent Kuril Islands have been hit by powerful tsunamis.

Is the infrastructure of sea platforms, port terminals and pipelines prepared for such events?

The oil workers say "yes", while the Greens say "no".

But at least on Sakhalin they are working together to achieve a compromise - and that is not often the case in the rest of Russia.

Putin's agenda

Two years ago the Greens with enormous efforts thwarted an attempt by the oil company Yukos to lay a pipeline from Siberian deposits to China through pristine forest on the shores of Asia's largest fresh-water lake, Baikal. It is also a highly seismically active zone.

But in October the government suddenly lifted its objections to a very similar project proposed by another company, after it had received the public backing of President Vladimir Putin.

"Environmental impact assessment should not become an obstacle to the development of the country and its economy," he said then.

President Putin has set a target of doubling the country's GDP by 2010. He sees the oil industry as the engine that will drive the country's economy there and the Greens - as a fifth column standing in the way.

Speaking in July, he said he knew that at least some environmentalists were sponsored by Russia's international competitors.

But Mr Yablokov believes it is the Greens who serve Russia's real national interests and protect it from imminent threats: "If Russia doubles its GDP, it will be a catastrophe," he warns.

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