Greenpeace Russia has uncovered a startling secret that Gazprom has been keeping from the world: its oil spill response plan for the Prirazlomnaya oil platform has expired, meaning any drilling the company undertakes in this part of the Arctic would be illegal according to Russian legislation.

gazprom barents sea

This is the same company that is about to become the very first to produce Arctic oil, drilling from an aging platform in some of the most treacherous conditions on earth. Now we learn that the company doesn’t have a valid oil spill response plan in place, and that expert scientists are warning that 140,000 sq km of the ocean falls into the “risk zone” — meaning it could be severely affected in the event of a major spill.

The Russian Ministry of Emergency confirmed in a letter to Greenpeace Russia that the plan the Ministry approved in 2007 for Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya oil platform expired last month, five years after it was filed. The letter goes on to say that:

"In accordance with the requirements of section 3 of Annex 1 to the development and approval of plans to prevent and eliminate oil spills in the Russian Federation (approved by order of the Russian Emergencies Ministry on 28.12.2004. № 621), the term of the Plan is five years. 

“Subsequently, a letter was sent by the Russian Emergencies Ministry in March to "Gazprom Neft Shelf” with an indication of the need for processing of the oil spill mitigation plan and subsequent submission of the corrected plan to the relevant federal bodies of executive power and the Russian Emergencies Ministry for consideration and decision on endorsement."

Yet despite the fact that Gazprom Neft Shelf (a subsidiary of Gazprom that deals with the Arctic) has yet to file a corrected plan in compliance with federal requirements, the company is still forging ahead with its plans to drill for oil this summer in Russia’s Pechora Sea.

Gazprom said in May that it would begin drilling as early as July but the company has been about as forthcoming with dates and the status of its drilling plans as it has been with its oil spill response plan — in fact, Gazprom could already be drilling there.

Because Gazprom hasn’t released more than a summary of its oil spill response plan to the public — and because the company has been highly secretive about virtually every aspect of its plans to drill in the Pechora Sea — Greenpeace and WWF commissioned independent oil spill modelling from the experts at the Russian center Informatica Riska, who ran various spill scenarios involving the Prirazlomnaya platform, to determine the total area which may be affected by an accident and whether or not the company is capable of dealing with oil spills. And the results aren’t pretty.

The conclusion of Valentin Ivanovich Zhuravel, the project manager at the "Informatika Riska" Center who conducted the modeling, was this:

"Our analysis showed that using the existing norms and standards [of Russian legislation] establishing a volume of oil spills [up to 10,000 tons], we can often observe conditions when the operating company will not be able to contain and recover the spill. For example, if a spill occurred at night or under adverse meteorological conditions. This can lead to significant pollution in the Pechora Sea coast and protected areas. "

We all know there is no way to guarantee a spill won’t happen. And time and again experts tell us there is no way to effectively clean-up an oil spill in perfect conditions, let alone in the Arctic.

But Gazprom doesn’t even seem to be trying.

According to the findings, Gazprom’s equipment is enough to stand the paltry test of 500 tonnes of spilt oil (Deepwater Horizon spilt more than 5 million tonnes); anything more and the company would need the help of the rest of its oil spill response kit, which, if you can believe it, is more than 1,000km away from the platform.

It would take the company days to mount a proper emergency response. In contrast, there are three protected wildlife and nature reserves only 50-60km away, home to the Atlantic walrus and countless species of birds — at this proximity, an oil spill could reach them within roughly 20 hours; long before the oil spill response equipment could. To clean the shore, Gazprom's plan includes such primitive response equipment as 15 shovels, 15 buckets, and a sledgehammer.

Russian experts have said that drilling in the Arctic will be more difficult than exploring outer space. Letting Gazprom embark on a drilling mission like this without proper plans in place is tantamount to climbing into a spaceship without a heat shield.

Without proper oil spill plans in place, we are trusting one of the most accident-prone industries in Russia to carry out a perfect operation in the pristine Arctic. That’s a fool’s gamble, in any language.

Note: The original letter from the Ministry of Emergency to Greenpeace Russia can be found here.