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Last Updated: Friday, 15 July, 2005, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Pipeline risk to Siberia wildlife
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, eastern Siberia, Russia

Captive leopard
Leopards have already disappeared from North Korea and China
Seven time zones east of Moscow is one of the most protected areas of Russia.

The lush forests of the Pine Valley nature reserve are home to dozens of endangered species - none more rare than the Amur Leopard.

The big cat once stalked this land in great numbers but there are fewer than 40 leopards left.

This corner of Russia is the cat's last remaining wild habitat.

Now environmentalists warn it is under threat - from a plan to build the longest oil pipeline in the world.

The state-backed pipeline monopoly Transneft will shortly submit its final proposal for the multi-billion-dollar project - a line to feed the energy-hungry markets of China and Japan from the as yet untapped reserves of east Siberian oilfields.

Natural garden

According to the current proposal, the pipeline would pass within metres of the Pine Valley reserve, taking 1.6 million barrels of oil a day to a vast terminal on the coast.

Alexander Zayev is in charge of five rangers protecting the reserve. Driving out on patrol, his old rifle rattling against one camouflage-clad knee, Alexander says his main enemies are poachers and forest fires.

China is developing fast and needs lots of oil. So we have a lot to gain with this
Sergei Grigoriev
Transneft Vice President

He calls the valley a natural botanical garden - it has been guarded from human intervention since Soviet times.

But Alexander fears the Pacific pipeline project would cause irreparable damage.

"The population in this area would increase several times," he says.

"That means many more poachers; more people straying into the reserve. With a new industrial zone on our doorstep, this area would be impossible for us to protect."

Those backing the Pacific pipeline call it the mega-project of the century.

But environmentalist Sergei Bereznyuk believes it would be the last straw for the Amur leopard.

"We already lost the leopard population in North Korea and China. The last ones are here in the Russian Far East," explains Sergei, director of the Phoenix Fund in Vladivostok.

He has appealed to the courts to try to stop the project.

"It's just crazy to make the pipeline go through the leopards' habitat," he says. "We've proposed other routes that would be better for the people of Primorye region and for the leopard."

Beyond the initial construction work, Sergei is also concerned about plans to build a terminal in the pristine bay at Perevoznaya. The water here is shallow and the winds strong, so local scientists calculate oilspills from tanker traffic are a real risk. Russia's only marine reserve is just a few miles out to sea.

Strategic project

The pipeline route via Perevoznaya has not been approved yet by the government, and officially Transneft says it is not final. But the firm seems confident. It is already promoting the project at major conferences; luring investors.

"This is a unique project," enthuses Transneft Vice President Sergei Grigoriev, surrounded by hundreds of businessmen - many of them foreign - all vying to be involved with the pipeline.

Russian rangers
The rangers fear more people will mean more poachers

"China is developing fast and needs lots of oil. So we have a lot to gain with this."

As Russia seeks to diversify politically as well as economically - to look east, as well as west - the pipeline makes sound strategic sense for Russia too.

Traditionally, such grand state projects pay scant regard to the environment. But now Transneft is in the international spotlight, it insists it has that covered.

"This bay is preferable to any other, our specialists have proved that," argues Sergei Grigoriev. "Ecologists shouldn't look at the route we're choosing, but the technology we use. We'll select that specially to protect the environment."

There are already signs that old habits die hard though. Further along the pipeline route close to the shores of Lake Baikal, Greenpeace discovered evidence Transneft contractors were logging protected forests illegally.

Refinery plans

An international outcry got the pipeline survey work stopped by the courts - for now.

But the project to take Siberian oil to Asia has powerful allies in the Russian Far East, as well as in Moscow.

Perevoznaya Bay, Russian far east
We could turn it into a serious industrial hub - and really boost our local economy
Viktor Gorashkov
Deputy Governor of Primorye region
Close to China, this former defence outpost is still struggling to adjust to a civilian economy. So local officials are lobbying hard for the pipeline, seeing oil as a quick fix - bringing new jobs and new opportunities.

"Of course we are interested in the oil coming here," says Viktor Gorashkov, Deputy Governor of the Primorye region responsible for international relations.

"Perevoznaya is half-empty at the moment, but we want to develop that whole area. We could turn it into a serious industrial hub - and really boost our local economy."

Local officials have already approached Russia's number two oil firm TNK-BP to discuss building a refinery in the region. The company, which is 50% owned by British Petroleum, confirms it sent a low-key delegation on a fact-finding mission last month.

"These are very early days, there is no decision yet," says TNK-BP spokesman Peter Henshaw.

"There are various things to consider. But we are aware of the controversy, and any new-build project TNK-BP undertakes must meet best international standards."

Those standards include environmental considerations, but that is likely to be small comfort to those who are certain the Amur leopard will be destroyed in the wild if the Pacific pipeline project goes ahead. They see this as a test case of modern Russia's priorities.

See the leopards which may be threatened by the pipeline

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