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Activists warn of risk of disastrous oil spill in Russian Arctic

August 14, 2012 |  3:36 pm

Greenpeace International's Kumi Naidoo and Greenpeace Russia's Vladimir Chuprov

Environmentalists warned Tuesday that drilling for oil in the Arctic could put Russian protected land at risk of being polluted by an oil spill before federal emergency crews could reach the remote area.

Their warnings were backed up by an analysis from a Russian think tank, commissioned by Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, showing that an oil spill could reach nature reserves and protected areas in as little as 18 hours. Although some help could arrive within a few hours, Greenpeace Russia said it would take professional teams three or four days to arrive at the site.

A tanker accident could send 10,000 metric tons of oil spilling out into the Pechora Sea for five days, the Informatika Riska Center estimated. More than 50,000 square miles could be at risk of being severely affected in the event of a major spill, Greenpeace warned.

Such a spill would be quite rare, project manager Valentine Jouravel at Informatika Riska told reporters, though activists countered that past spills had also been seen as unlikely, the Moscow Times reported.

"It seems that in case of [an] extremely large spill ... the nearby nature preserves cannot be avoided with 100% guarantee," Jouravel wrote in an email to the Los Angeles Times.

The state-owned energy company that is behind the drilling plans, Gazprom, could not be immediately reached for comment. It disputed the report in an email to the Associated Press, saying its platform used the latest technology and exceeded environmental standards and that it teams with another oil company that could help it speed up emergency efforts.

Gazprom is poised to become the first company to produce Arctic oil, capitalizing on a region believed to contain more untapped oil than any other area on the globe.

Environmental groups have tried to halt such drilling, contending that cleaning up an oil spill in the unforgiving Arctic would be too daunting and the risks for fragile ecosystems too great.

The Russian think tank found that companies might struggle to contain spills at night or in harsh weather, which "can lead to significant pollution in the Pechora Sea coast and protected areas."

"There is no technology in the world that could guarantee an effective cleanup," Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia wrote in an email to the Los Angeles Times. The only way to protect the nature reserves, he said, would be "to cancel drilling and phase out this dangerous project."

Greenpeace has also raised concerns that Gazprom has not filed a corrected plan for how it would respond to an oil spill at the Prirazlomnaya oil platform, citing a letter from the Russian Emergencies Ministry that states its last plan expired in July. Without such a plan, the group said, any drilling in this part of the Arctic would be illegal under Russian law.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Greenpeace Russian energy researcher Vladimir Chuprov, left, and Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo at a news conference in Moscow on Tuesday. Credit: Misha Japaridze / Associated Press

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