Come and spend two weeks traveling the oil fields of the Komi Republic and you can see two hundred different places contaminated in one way or another by the oil industry: rivers, swamps, forests, and green fields.
Many of the locals you meet will tell you they know where there are more oil spills and offer to show you before remembering that many of these disasters happen in areas under guard and inaccessible to the public. But in the public lands you will see plenty of mess, as the spills can sit there (seeping into the soil and water) for years, plenty of time for anyone who knows where to look for them.
If you work really hard for two weeks, with an enthusiastic and committed team, who are trained in the proper disposal of hazardous waste materials, you can remove close to 150 cubic metres of oil waste from the environment (that's approximately 135 tonnes). But it's really, really hard work. The oil sludge is heavy and sticky, the equipment you use to collect it is also heavy and cumbersome, and the substance you are trying to collect is dangerous for your health. You always have to be aware of the danger of getting this stuff on your skin, in your eyes, or inhaling fumes. On top of this – you will sweat an amazing amount inside your protective gear. You cannot safely (or comfortably) collect spilled oil easily. It's a messy, frustrating job. And you will never completely remove this oil contamination, or its consequences, from the environment.
All of this has been the experience of the Oil Spill Patrol team which has been working in the Usinskoe oil field in the Komi Republic, a region in sub-Arctic Russia and in the Kharyaga oil field, located in the Nenets-Autonomous District, an Arctic region. What we've witnessed the last two weeks is an oil industry that is verging on out-of-control damage to the environment and local livelihoods, where hundreds of spills and other contamination is often ignored or hidden. This region has already seen the worst the oil industry can do, but there is also hope that it can become a stage where solutions to the oil spill problem in Russia can be demonstrated.
Greenpeace Russia and Save the Pechora Committee, a Komi NGO, developed a set of recommendations to fill the gaps in the rules that govern the oil industry in Russia, to put more focus on preventing oil spills in the first place and stricter punishment for spills. Russia produces over 500 million tonnes of oil every year – and regulating such a gargatuan industry is challenging in the best circumstances. But even basic incentives are missing, for instance there is no rule that oil companies should make efforts to avoid oil spills (!).
The improvements to the laws that Greepeace Russia is recommending have already gotten support from the Governor of the Komi region, the Komi Ministry of Natural Resources and the environmental protection agency. Together the government, Greenpeace Russia and Save the Pechora Committee will issue a joint declaration about strengthening laws to prevent oil spills, and this has a chance to be endorsed by the parliament of the Komi region and taken all the way to the federal level where it could be relevant not just for the Komi region, but for all of Russia.
The local oil industry is less enthusiastic about change, but still willing to have a discussion about the oil spill problem. At the joint Greenpeace Russia/ Komi Administration roundtable discussion held in Usinsk last week one of the oil company representatives from LUKOIL-Komi, the biggest operator in the Komi Republic, was very open about the positive steps the company was making: including 5 billion rubles spent on environmental causes in the last decade. He was less able to speak about the negative aspect of their operations in Komi.
LUKOIL was asked: "It's been stated that 70% of all oil pipelines in Komi are out of date. What percentage of the LUKOIL pipes are out of date?"
"Actually I can't say. Pipes are getting older every second," was LUKOIL's answer. When you know that 97% of oil leaks and spills in Russia are caused by old and badly maintained pipelines, this answer leaves a lot to be desired.
The oil industry in Russia is massive – the infrastructure for extraction and transportation of oil is everywhere you look in the Komi region (which is not even the largest oil producing region of Russia). But the system of preventing spills and restoring contaminated areas is too weak to balance the Leviathon that is the extraction side of the industry. Our experience just during the past two weeks provided plenty of examples: not enough trucks available to collect oil waste or equipement which breaks down, bags of collected oil sludge mysteriously removed only to be found by our Oil Spill Patrol team in an illegal oil waste dump in the forest a few days later.
This illegal dump site is now included in a long list of violations that Greenpeace Russia and Save the Pechora Committee will present in official complaints to the environmental prosecutor of the Komi region. The Komi government has agreed to add the contamination sites we've identified to their official list of areas that need to be investigated, so that perpatrators can be found and fined – but the scale of the oil spill problem, 200 sites seen by our patrol alone, is frustrating when you know the system to respond to these violations is weak. Across Russia there are up to 5 million tonnes of oil spilled every year, according to expert estimates. And the problem is not contained - approximately 500,000 tonnes of oil products contamination flows up river to pollute the Arctic Ocean each year from the onland oil fields.
At the end of two weeks in the oil fields, after bearing witness to an overwhelming number of contaminated sites, one of our team members had a conversation with an oil industry insider about our Oil Spill Patrol team, which he shared during one of our last team meetings in Komi: "If it wasn't for us, our Oil Spill Patrol efforts here in Komi, things would be even worse. The oil companies would be totally out of control. So, we are the control."
That's the final lesson from the Oil Spill Patrol in Komi, often the only thing that holds us back from out of control environmental destruction is a small, but determined group of people who refuse to be overwhelmed.
Laura Kenyon is a media coordinator at Greenpeace International.