In August 2013, activists from a local NGO reported an oil spill in the north of the Tomsk region, Siberia. Two months later, Rosprirodnadzor (Russia's environmental supervision agency) examined the area in Gazprom's Urmanskoe oil field and reported that no oil contamination was found.
Gazprom itself stated that the spill was very small (only 90 kilograms of oil leaked) and that this oil had already been fully recovered. Rospriradnadzor was satisfied with this information. At that point, Gazprom was fined 10,000 roubles (about 300 US dollars) for not having reported the accident on time.
However, Greenpeace Russia's analysis of satellite images of the same oil field revealed 71 oil spills, a total area of 3.1 hectares. This is far more than the 90 kilograms of oil which Gazprom claimed it had spilled.
Greenpeace Russia has strong reasons not to trust the conclusions of Gazprom and Rosprirodnadzor, as it appears that both the company and state agency attempted to downplay the scale of the spill. It is very possible that after the company learned state inspectors had been informed of the accident they covered the spills with soil to hide them.
Therefore Greenpeace Russia has made an official request to prosecutors to examine the area, where experts have identified 71 points of possible oil contamination using high-resolution satellite images. The prosecutor has also been sent these images showing the exact location of every potential spill.
Gazprom is among the five dirtiest companies in Russia; on a yearly basis it is responsible for approximately 2,000 spills of oil and associated toxic products, as a result of its old and rusty pipelines.
"In most cases, paying a paltry fine and covering the spill with sand is the only responsibility Gazprom bears for all the damage it causes to the environment," explains Vladimir Chuprov, head of the Energy Department of Greenpeace Russia. "With outdated oil pipeline infrastructure and lax state control, it's not surprising that concealing oil spills rather than cleaning them up is the common practice in Russia."
The punishment for spills, failing to clean them up, and concealing accidents must be significant enough that it becomes too expensive for companies to take this risk. For instance, a Russian court recently ruled that Lukoil should pay 20 million USD for its spills in Komi region — an unprecedented fine in Russia.
That is why dirty companies like Gazprom should be kept far away from the icy Arctic shelf. There is no reason to believe Gazprom's reassurances that "spills during oil production and storage are absolutely impossible" at the Prirazlomnaya rig in the Barents Sea. If drilling in the extreme conditions of the Arctic shelf is allowed to continue an oil spill there is just a matter of time.
Maria Favorskaya is a Press Officer at Greenpeace Russia.