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Russia: A country of oil spills

March 29, 2021

With an oil leak occurring somewhere in the country almost every half hour, Russia records many more spills than other oil-rich states. One hotspot is the Komi Republic in the far north.

Men cleaning an oil spill from a river
Men cleaning an oil spill from a river near the Komi Republic town of Usinsk in Russia's far northImage: Greenpeace Russia

On an August morning in 1994, Ekaterina Dyachkova took her usual walk down to the Pechora River in her village of Novikbozh in Russia's far north. As she approached, a strange smell stung her nose, and when she reached the water, she realized it was black. Boats and their oars were covered in oil.   

"Our fishermen were coming back with sticky black nets," Dyachkova, a 62-year-old biology teacher and school director, told DW. "It smelled like a gas station." 

The oil spill, which had occurred at nearby drilling sites in the Komi Republic town of Usinsk, went down in history as one of the biggest ever on land. Later, research revealed that multiple breaches in old Soviet pipelines had been leaking for eight months, with the fact being hidden from the public for as long as possible. When an oil slick 15 centimeters (6 inches) deep reached the river, however, the disaster was all too evident.

Black smoke billows from a wooded area
The 1994 oil spill in Russia's far north went down in history as one of the biggest ever on landImage: Greenpeace
A woman stands in the snow with a Russian village in the background
Ekaterina Dyachkova has been working to confront the oil giants ever since the disasterImage: Tatiana Kondratenko/DW

The full scale of the accident is still unknown, with estimates on the amount of oil that spilled ranging from 100,000 to 200,000 tons. More than 120 hectares (300 acres) of fragile tundra were contaminated. Cattle developed tuberculosis, and researchers found oil inside fish, whose bone structure had also been deformed. 

Without enough clean-up equipment, villagers resorted to scraping oil from the ground and skimming it out of the water with shovels. Affected areas were set on fire to burn the oil off the ground — the cheapest clean-up method, but the most damaging for ecosystems. 

A closeup of a bird's claws covered in oil
When oil covers birds' feathers, they can't move and suffocate as a resultImage: Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace

"Later, we received compensation of 36 rubles. We had to laugh because all you could get for that money was two bottles of vodka," Dyachkova remembered. 

'Welcome to the oil capital of Komi Republic'

There is a long history of oil in the northwestern Komi Republic. It was here, back in the 15th century, that Russian oil was first mentioned. In the 1960s, the town of Usinsk was a settlement for oil workers, but two decades later it had become a city built around one industry. 

A map of Russia with the Komi Republic highlighted
The oil town of Usinsk is located in the far north and belongs to Russia's Arctic territory

 The roughly 40,000-strong town now greets new airport arrivals with a sign that reads "Welcome to the oil capital of Komi Republic."  

The claim is not exaggerated. By the end of the 1990s, Usinsk oil workers had extracted some 200 million tons of oil. Nowadays, they drill an average of 9 million tons annually — more than half of Komi's total production.  

Currently, Russian oil giants Lukoil and Rosneft are the biggest local players.

Even though locals like Dyachkova have been spared another major disaster, oil spills and accidents are common.

When an oil well near Novikbozh caught fire in 2017 and flames blazed for a month, winds carried black thick smog and toxic particles across the tundra. In autumn last year, another oil spill contaminated a river where locals go fishing. 

Oil at any cost

Life in Komi villages like Novikbozh is hard. Winter temperatures can drop to -45 degrees Celsius (-49 degrees Fahrenheit). And despite being located in an oil heartland, most homes like Dyachkova's small one-floor house are heated by wood-burning stoves. With no running water, locals often collect water from creeks, but they don't know whether it's completely free from oil and safe to use.

Two locals push a sled with a water barrel through the snow
Water has to be collected from creeks, even in the coldest weatherImage: Tatiana Kondratenko/DW

Since 1994, Dyachkova has been part of the "Save Pechora Committee," a local NGO focused on protecting the environment by documenting suspected leaks in the region. 

Yet for all that, Dyachkova is not opposed to the oil industry, which employs many people from the area. She just wants companies to act responsibly.

"People should have a choice to live in normal conditions with clean air and water," Dyachkova said.

Fellow Novikbozh resident Galina Chuprova, who works at the village post office and is also active in the NGO, says "laws are crafted in a way that grants oil companies a green light for everything but offers nothing in return for us." 

Oil wells at night
The village of Novikbozh has numerous oil wells nearbyImage: Tatiana Kondratenko/DW

Greenpeace Russia campaign director Vladimir Chuprov agrees with this description. He says the industry, which is essential to both the regional and national economies, is "floating in conditions where companies operate outside of the legal framework."

He says because oil companies are granted governmental subsidies and tax breaks and, most importantly, environmental laws are inadequate, they can "get away from the financial responsibilities of oil spills and the social and environmental consequences."  

Saving money on pipelines 

Oil spills are by no means restricted to this region. According to the Russian Ministry of Energy, there were over 17,000 leaks in 2019, mostly from pipelines. That data suggests an oil spill is happening somewhere in Russia almost every half hour. By comparison, the US recorded 137 spills in 2018. In Canada, where climate conditions at oil wells are similar to those in Russia, only 60 events with oil releases were documented in 2019.

A list of oil spills by major companies
*DW reached out to Rosneft and Lukoil to comment on data from Greenpeace Russia, but they didn't respond

Russia's pipeline system is one of the longest in the world and was largely developed in the Soviet era. Oil pipelines alone stretch for 53,000 kilometers (32,933 miles) — more than once around the whole Earth.

However, more than half of all oil pipelines in the country are worn from age, which is causing most of the leaks, says Russia's Natural Resources and Environment Ministry. 

Oil workers from companies operating in Russia's far north confirmed in anonymous interviews with DW that the infrastructure at some oil wells is inadequate. 

Regular check-ups and replacement of pipes are costly for companies and often aren't done thoroughly. Greenpeace Russia estimates that the country's oil companies save around $3 billion (€2.5 billion) annually by not investing in new infrastructure. This, according to Greenpeace, helps to keep production costs lower and makes the industry more profitable for investors. 

Drilling under the watch of social media 

Russia remains the second-biggest oil producer in the world. With the new vast Vostok Oil project in the Arctic, it is clear the country intends to stay on the fossil fuels path. 

These days, that also means dealing with the growing public criticism on social media. Companies are confronted with evidence and forced to react.

"In recent years, we've been receiving more information from the ground, from journalists and locals. They witness spills and make them public on social media," said Alexey Knizhnikov, head of WWF-Russia's environmental responsibility program for business.

And this method seems to work. On May 29 last year, 20,000 tons of oil spilledinto a lake in Russia's Arctic north. Mining giant Nornickel did not inform the public for a couple of days, but pictures quickly spread on social media and made headlines in Russian and international media. Nornickel stresses to have duly notified authorities about the accident the same day it happened acting in line with the emergency response plan. However, an official press release regarding the accident was not published until two days later. Ultimately, Nornickel was forced to pay a fine to the tune of 146 billion rubles ($2 billion, €1.62 billion) — the largest ever for environmental damage in Russia.


A woman holding a file box
Dyachkova's 'evening reading': boxes with documents about new local oil projects Image: Tatiana Kondratenko/DW

Ekaterina Dyachkova wants to see companies made accountable like this more often. In her hallway, there are two boxes of documents relating to new oil projects across the region. The last seismic test searching for drilling points went right through her garden. 

"If they build a new oil derrick right next to my village saying it's safe for us, then I would like people in charge of these projects to come and live here with their children,” said Dyachkova. 

A previous version of this article referred to WWF-Russia as Russia World Wide Fund. This error has now been corrected. This article was last updated on April 1 to add Nornickel's position.