Massive Oil Spill in The Arctic Region – Russia Declares A Federal Emergency

Environment

A national-level state of emergency has been declared by the Russian President Vladimir Putin in the regions of Norilsk and Taimyr, northern Siberia. The declared state of emergency in these Arctic regions is to bring in the ‘federal resources’ to assist the arduous clean-up efforts following a spill of more than 20,000 tonnes of diesel into the Ambarnaya river near the city of Norilsk on May 29, 2020 (Nechepurenko 2020). The unprecedented diesel spill into the vast stretches of the waterways of the Arctic region has resulted in ‘bright red/crimson patches’ along the remote waterways of the tundra region (Scmp 2020).

The oil spill in the Arctic region happened after the collapse of a fuel tank at a power plant which supposedly led to a leakage into an area seven miles from the site of the accident (Nechepurenko 2020). The current oil spill incident tutored as the “first accident of such a large scale in the Arctic” occurred at the power plant owned by Russian mining conglomerate PJSC MMC Norilsk Nickel and operated by its subsidiary (Greenpeace 2020).

Much to the chagrin and dismay of Russian President himself, the regional authorities came to know about the incident after two days of occurrence and that too embarrassingly from social media platforms (Ellyatt 2020). The official statement from Norilsk though negates any delay in a prompt disaster response from their end. According to the official statement from the Norilsk, “the accident was caused by a sudden sinking of supporting posts in the basement of the storage tank” and that emergency teams “immediately arrived to the site to start clean up works” (Ellyatt 2020).
Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/world/europe/russia-oil-spill-arctic.html

Possible Impacts Due to The Oil Spill in The Arctic Region
According to Vladimir Chuprov, Head of Energy of Greenpeace Russia, the massive oil spill has led to at least 76 million USD damages “to waterways above the Arctic Circle” (The Moscow Times 2020). The Greenpeace Russia, a popular environmental NGO has done the calculations based on the methodology followed by the environmental ministry of Russia. Vladimir Chuprov in his statement categorically stated that, “the installed booms will only help collect a small part of the pollution, leading us to say that nearly all the diesel fuel will remain in the environment” of the Arctic regions (ibid.). Chuprov also warned the international community that the calculations do not factor in the other damages caused by the disastrous oil spill – for example, the plausible impacts on the atmosphere and soil from the greenhouse gas emissions of the fuel (ibid.).

Another growing concern is whether the spilled oil might escape the emergency barriers erected. Russia has already deployed emergency workers to construct booms to prevent the spread of the fuel “further into the Ambarnaya, a tributary of Lake Pyasino” (DW 2020). It is crucial to note that the Lake Pyasino “feeds a river that flows into the Kara Sea arm of the Arctic” and as rightly pointed out by Vasily Ryabinin, the regional inspector, in case of a storm/strong wind there are strong chances that the diesel will settle on the river banks, thus, eventually poisoning the ecosystem surrounding Norilsk and Pyasino (ibid.).

Rosprirodnadzor, the Russian federal executive authority, on supervision and control of environmental management, upon the field visit of the site has stated that almost all affluent creeks and rivers are now filled up by the thick layer of oil and diesel products due to the spill (Staalesen 2020). Similar sentiments were echoed by Svetlana Radionova (environmental watchdog of Russia) to Putin, that the “water samples show several tens of thousands times higher concentrations of oil products than the maximum allowed level” and “about 6,000 tons of diesel oil has spilled into the tundra and another about 15,000 tons have ended up in the local waterways” (ibid.).

It is almost certain that the spilled fuel will  “remain in the soil and bottom sediments and will poison the water and the ground with toxic soluble components of diesel fuel (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene)” (Mironenko, 2020). According to Boris Morgunov, director of the HSE Institute of Ecology, the neutralisation and elimination of the disastrous consequences in central Russia might possibly take at least 3-4 years and “given the fact that in the Arctic nature is restored much longer, we can talk about decades” (ibid.).

The Reason Behind The Collapse of Fuel Tank : Melting of Permafrost?
According to Yevgeny Sinichev, leader of the Ministry of Emergency situations (Emercom), the oil spill in the Arctic region resulted due to the sinking of the ground under the reservoir which subsequently ruined the base of the installations and led to the collapse of the fuel tank (Staalesen 2020). The experts are quick to point out that this incident significantly highlights the “the danger of climate change for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid warmer temperatures” (Scmp 2020). Norilsk Nickel has already issued a statement that they deeply suspect thawing of permafrost as the reason behind the sudden collapse of their fuel tank (Scmp 2020). The culprit behind the disastrous oil spill being the permafrost thawing in the Arctic regions of Russia is in consonance with the fears and suspicions raised by experts in the domain of environment and climate change.

According to the climate experts, Russia is experiencing global warming almost “2.5 times faster than the world average” and this is deeply critical for a geographical area where “65 per cent of the nation” is covered by permafrost (The Economic Times 2020). “Warming, thawing and degradation of permafrost” are experienced in many regions of Russia and are most likely to only increase in the near future due to the results of climate change happening world-wide (climatechangepost 2020). According to a 2012 IPCC report, there has been increase in the warming of permafrost in the recent decades and the same report has mentioned that “there is high confidence that permafrost temperatures will continue to increase, and that there will be increases in active layer thickness and reductions in the area of permafrost in the Arctic and subarctic” (climatechangepost 2020).

Rewinding a few years back, Russia’s environmental ministry in 2018 issued a warning that the global warming will cause the thawing of permafrost which could subsequently damage the “pipes and and structures, as well as buried toxic waste, which can seep into waterways” (The Economic Times 2020). Hence, it is not fully ironical that Russia has decided to sign the Paris Climate Accord in the early days of October 2019. Even then, this decision had stirred quite a surprise amongst the climate experts and the international community in general. The reason being quite obvious – it is a common knowledge that Russia never really bothered about climate change and most of its leaders believed climate change never existed (Bos 2020). So, what could have brought about this sudden change in their policy views? To understand the reasons we need to understand a bit of topography of Russia.

Russia, though the largest country in the world by landmass, only a small area of this vast Arctic nation–southwest to be precise, can be used for livestock and farming (Bos 2019). This is precisely the reason “why most of the population lives in the western part near Europe and is pretty cut off from the rest of the country by the Ural mountains” (ibid.). The remaining part of Russia “is made up of dense forest, mountains, permafrost and ice, and the population there is mostly around 1 person per square kilometer or less — mostly less” (ibid.). The northern side of Russia is covered by permafrost, the southern regions melt and refreeze during various seasons – the only advantage to a desolated country being scattered valuable resources and “fossil fuels like oil and gas with pipes and critical infrastructure going from the Siberian region all the way to the (non-northern) corners of Eurasia” (ibid.).

Considering such a topography, it should not come as a surprise that most of the oil infrastructures and networks in Russia are built on permafrost – for example, like the now  infamous Norilsk power plant. As the permafrost are melting rapidly, “the production capacity of all existing oil and gas facilities has already declined because the foundation can no longer bear the load” and “some have declined as little as 2% and some have declined by more than 20% since the 1990s” (Bos 2020). There are other two main dangers (particularly to infrastructures and buildings) associated with permafrost degradation- “ground subsidence and bearing capacity” (climatechangepost 2020). Something which is suspected to have happened in the current Norilsk oil spill. Russia, as we all know, is one of the largest producers of oil and the largest exporters of natural gas. Hence, all the threatening impacts of climatic changes on its future oil and natural resources conservation/production has put an obvious pressure on Russia and its leaders which led them to ultimately sign the Paris Climate Accord in 2019.

Way Forward

Lately, climate related catastrophes have been troubling Russia. The 2019 Siberian wildfires caused almost $100 million damage, in addition to the fire engulfing an ‘area larger than Greece’ (Gershkovich 2020). Greenpeace termed the wildfire incident as a “climate catastrophe,” and “the fires emitted more carbon dioxide in June alone than Sweden does in an entire year, reports The Moscow Times (ibid). As the wildfires were spreading, “a cyclone struck the Irkutsk region, triggering what scientists said were the worst floods in the area in 180 years” (ibid.). According to the Department of Meteorology and Near-Earth Physics of the Geographical Department of Iowa State University (ISU), the catastrophic floods are the result of  “the anomalous development of atmospheric processes, which manifested themselves against the background of observed global and regional climate changes” and they have warned the Russian authorities that there are high chances of recurrence of such floods in future (ISU 2019). Adding to the list of the disastrous impacts due to the climate change, is the present massive oil spill in the Arctic region of north Siberia.

The scientists have been consistently warning Russia and the world that the rate of global warming in the Arctic region is twice as fast when compared to the rest of the world. This puts Russia, in particular, at higher risk since most of their buildings, infrastructures and pipelines are built predominantly on permafrost, which has already started thawing at dangerously faster levels. It is heartening to see that despite disagreements at many levels, the United States has offered Russia a helping hand in cleaning up the oil spill in the Arctic region. Global warming is not and should not be the concern of any particular country/ region. The impacts of regional and global climatic changes can affect all of us in the most dangerous way, when least expected. Hence, it is high time the world and the international community joint hands and address the climate change concerns with immediate effects. Russia’s signing of Paris Climate Accord in 2019 and the United States’ helping hand to Russia in time of distress are welcome moves in this regard.  

References

1. Bos C. 2019. Russia Signs Climate Accords & Putin Responds To Climate Change, But There’s A Catch, Clean Technica, October 4. Available at: https://cleantechnica.com/2019/10/04/russia-signs-climate-accords-putin-responds-to-climate-change-but-theres-a-catch/

2. Bos C. 2020. Melting Permafrost Claims Its First Major Victim, Russia’s Oil & Gas Network, Clean Technica, June 9. Available at: https://cleantechnica.com/2020/06/09/melting-permafrost-claims-its-first-major-victim-russias-oil-gas-network/

3. Climatechangepost. 2020. Russia, May 16. Available at: https://www.climatechangepost.com/russia/permafrost/

4. DW. 2020. Russian Oil Spill Leads To Charges Against Plant Director, June 8. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/russian-oil-spill-leads-to-charges-against-plant-director/a-53737103

5.  Ellyatt H. 2020. Russia Declares State of Emergency After Massive Oil Spill in The Arctic Circle, CNBC, June 4. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/04/russia-oil-spill-in-the-arctic-circle-state-of-emergency-declared.html

6. Gershkovich E. 2020. In Siberian Fuel Spill, Climate Change Is Seen as Major Factor, The Moscow Times, June 5. Available at: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/06/05/in-siberian-fuel-spill-climate-change-is-seen-as-major-factor-a70494

7. Greenpeace. 2020. Before and After: Taimyr Accident in Space Images. Available at: https://greenpeace.ru/news/2020/06/02/do-i-posle-avarija-na-tajmyre-v-kosmosnimkah/. Accessed on June 9, 2020.

8. ISU. 2019. Consistency Anomaly. Available at:  http://isu.ru/ru/news/newsitem.html?action=show&id=7268. Accessed on June 11. 2020. 

9. Mironenko P. 2020. The consequences of the accident near Norilsk, the military against Trump and how to survive Groundhog Day, The Bell, June 4. Available at: https://thebell.io/posledstviya-avarii-pod-norilskom-voennye-protiv-trampa-i-kak-perezhit-den-surka

10. Nechepurenko I. 2020. Russia Declares Emergency After Arctic Oil Spill, The New York Times, June 4. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/world/europe/russia-oil-spill-arctic.html

11. Staalesen A. 2020. Environmental catastrophe is declared as one of biggest ever Arctic oil spills stretches out over Taymyr tundra, The Barents Observer, June 4. Available at: https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic-ecology/2020/06/environmental-catastrophe-declared-one-biggest-ever-arctic-oil-spills

12. South China Morning Post (Scmp). 2020. Russia Says Melting Permafrost Caused Massive Arctic Oil Spill, June 6. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/world/europe/article/3087835/russia-says-melting-permafrost-caused-massive-arctic-oil-spill

13. The Economic Times. 2020. Russia finds permafrost melting behind Arctic fuel spill, June 8. Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/environment/pollution/russia-finds-permafrost-melting-behind-arctic-fuel-spill/melting-permafrost/slideshow/76258695.cms

14. The Moscow Times. 2020. Massive Siberian Oil Spill Causes $80M in Waterway Damage – Greenpeace, June 4. Available at: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/06/04/massive-siberian-oil-spill-causes-80m-in-waterway-damage-greenpeace-a70475

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