This September I took my first trip to Russia to join the celebration of Greenpeace Russia’s 25 Year Anniversary.
In big cities like Moscow, oil powered transport is a major source of pollution and greenhouse gases emissions. This is why four major cities – Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens – have moved to ban diesel vehicles by 2025.
Energy based on oil can never be clean, whatever carmakers say. In Russia, I saw one of the darkest sides of the oil industry, hidden far away from the capital, deep in the forests of the north…
We travelled 1500km north, to the Komi region, one of the oldest oil producing regions in Russia. At first sight, I was amazed by the beauty of the country. We travelled on the great Pechora River in a small boat and watched endless white beaches and beautiful boreal forests bathed in the bright yellow colours of Autumn.
But when I looked closer, I saw a different picture: dead trees, black swamps, toxic water glistening with oil.
We found a huge oil spill which had happened the previous spring. It looked like it could be up to 10 hectares wide. Little had been done to clean it up. We only saw a few tired workers trying to dig out oil with shovels. Russia is infamous for having thousands of oil spills, big and small, around the country.
In 1994, one of the biggest man-made oil catastrophes hit Komi. More than 100,000 tonnes of oil spilled into rivers and forests when an old pipeline broke. The traces are still visible as pieces of stone-hard oil in the soil.
We met activists from the Save the Pechora Committee, a local NGO that unites people determined to protect their native land. Many of them are indigenous Komi people whose ancestors lived in this northern region for centuries.
As recently as April there was another accident in the region. A huge fire broke out at an oil well dangerously close to Pechora river. Hundreds of firefighters were unable to stop it and the fire burned for an entire month. The inhabitants of the two small villages nearby had to breathe toxic stink damp air (polluted with hydrogen sulphide) and the snow was covered with black soot.
One of the local families warmly invited us to their house. They live in a village with just 10 homes and love their native land and its closeness with nature.
But Lukoil (“one of the largest publicly traded oil and gas companies in the world accounting for more than 2% of the world’s oil production,” according to their website) is closing its circle of oil wells surrounding the village.
Nina Volotovskaya, one of the residents described a sunset; “I saw that the sky above the river became bright red. I called the local council and they said everything was fine. The authorities only visited us once, reassuring us that there was no threat. All that time we smelled rotten eggs. Accidents often happen here. From our house, I can see ten oil wells, and there are more and more each year. Lukoil never informs us or warns us – why would they bother about the opinion of a few families?”
Nina and thousands of other people like her all across the world have to pay with their health for so-called oil prosperity.
But these brave people give me hope. After 20 years of fighting against big oil, they haven’t given up. They’ve learnt how to map oil spills, how to measure water pollution and assess if the land was reclaimed in a proper way.
But they can’t stand alone against one of the most powerful industries in the world. They need our united efforts to ensure a future with clean air and clean water.
Lukoil, the company that has been poisoning Komi for years, is now heading to the Arctic. It is one of several fossil fuel companies that received licences from the Norwegian government to drill in the far north. These are areas that had never been exploited before. And we need to stop them. Click here to join us in suing the Norwegian government.
It’s up to all of us to remember that the oil we consume is destroying the planet and the lives of so many people across the globe.