By Leonid Ragozin
A row about an ambitious Siberian oil pipeline project is not over yet, despite an intervention by Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently in support of environmentalists.
Lake Baikal: The world's largest freshwater lake by volume
On Wednesday, President Putin said that the proposed pipeline route should be shifted away from the world's deepest and oldest freshwater lake - Baikal.
The state-owned company Transneft wanted the pipeline to run as close as 800 metres to the lake's northern shore.
"Any extension of the route makes it unprofitable," Transneft vice-president Sergey Grigoryev told BBCRussian.com.
Scientists and environmentalists had vehemently opposed the plan.
"The pipeline will be built on a steep slope in a highly seismic zone where earthquakes reach magnitude 7.5-7.8 on the Richter scale," said Professor Yuri Trzcinsky from the Earth's Crust Institute based in Irkutsk - the biggest city near the lake.
According to Jennie Sutton, co-founder of the Baikal Environmental Wave non-governmental body, "in the worst-case scenario 3,000 tons of oil may leak into Baikal".
"That is enough to cover one-third of its surface," said Ms Sutton, a Briton who has been living in Irkutsk since the early 1990s.
The East Siberian pipeline will bring Russia billions of dollars. But since 1996 Lake Baikal has been on Unesco's World Heritage list.
Mass protests against the pipeline united political forces in the Irkutsk region, including its governor, who was appointed by Mr Putin.
The project sparked protests across Russia
The Kremlin did not hide its support for the project. But at a conference in the Siberian city of Tomsk on Wednesday Mr Putin suddenly changed tack - though observers are still not entirely sure how to interpret his words.
According to the Itar-Tass news agency, it all started with Transneft head Semyon Vaynshtok saying that the pipeline construction would start this Friday.
The next speaker, Academician Nikolai Laverov, argued that Transneft should consider moving the route 40km (25 miles) away from the lake.
Mr Putin asked Mr Vaynshtok whether it was possible. Without waiting for reply, the president said: "If you are hesitating, then there is such an opportunity. Because if there wasn't, you would tell us that straight away".
Then Mr Putin proposed that the construction should begin from two directions, so that by the time the two branches approach Lake Baikal, a solution for bypassing the lake will be ready.
"Looks like we'll have to go much further north," Mr Vaynshtok observed.
EAST SIBERIAN PIPELINE
Capacity: 80m tons annually
First stage (to Skovorodino near China border) to be finished in 2008
Second stage (to Perevoznaya on Pacific coast) - by 2015
Project cost: $11.5bn (£6.4bn)
"I said further north, but where exactly - it's not a matter of major significance," Mr Putin was quoted as saying.
But environmentalists say it is very significant.
"Forty kilometres does not solve the problem, because this will still be within Baikal's watershed zone," Greenpeace Russia spokesman Mikhail Kreindlin told BBCRussian.com.
Environmentalists and many scientists insist that the pipeline should run through a sparsely populated area more than 100km north of the lake, away from the highly seismic zone. They claim it will make the cost 10-15% higher, but that in the long run this route may be more advantageous, as it will come closer to new oil deposits.
Mr Grigoryev rejected that as unfeasible.
Although Greenpeace hailed Mr Putin's decision as "environmentally sound", Mr Kreindlin still has doubts.
"Unfortunately we can't exclude the possibility that Transneft and officials affiliated with it might return to the initial project."
"When they reach the Baikal area they might just say that there is no viable alternative, while the pipeline to China needs to be completed as soon as possible. And then they will build it."
Further doubts arise from Mr Putin repeating Transneft's thesis about the project's environmental virtues.
"By building the pipeline we considerably reduce environmental risks," he said in Tomsk.
Transneft insists that the pipeline would reduce the risk posed by the existing railway that in some parts runs only 10 metres from the lake.
"In 2006 alone they will transport along this railway 15m tons of oil to China. Each train will carry 3,000 tons", Mr Grigoryev told BBCRussian.com.
He said the risk of a rail accident leading to an oil spillage from cisterns into Baikal was 100,000 times higher than that of a pipeline leak.
This claim was backed by Oleg Mitvol, the official in charge of water resources for Rosprirodnadzor, a state environmental watchdog.
"The construction of a pipeline is the only way of eliminating this hazard. Where to build it is a totally different matter," he said.
Mr Kreindlin says the battle for Baikal will continue.