Nenet boy and girl. Photo: The Norwegian Barents Secretariat (www.barentsphoto.com)It’s a constant battle against the elements. Very low temperatures during the year; getting even worse in winter, the wind, the night time and all the areas’ swamplands that make access impossible without a helicopter. Siberia, the vast region comprising of the Asian portion of Russia as well as Northern Kazakhstan, is a treasure of natural resources and rich in animal life. The region has huge reserves of mineral resources, for instance coal, gold, copper and iron. But its most valuable natural resource is, undoubtedly, petroleum, which has become one of the pillars of the global economy.
In 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico: BP spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil in the Atlantic Ocean. However, the Russian oil industry spills seven times this amount—over 30 million barrels—each year. Worse still, every 18 months, more than 4 million barrels spew into the Arctic Ocean.
Vast deposits of petroleum and natural gas have been discovered since the 1960s in Siberia, but the natural complexity of the land meant that 30 years had to pass before production became commercially viable (due to technological progress and high oil prices). Now, shiny glass palaces of the titans of Russia’s oil and gas industry are widespread, and the titans no longer seem to be worried about the natural conditions. In Uvat, it has been reported that oil yields were almost double the expected amount. This is why the oil moguls want both to develop more oil extraction and try to speed up the process.
The oil that comes from the tundra and taiga of Siberia cannot be refined and marketed there because there is no market for petroleum—such oil must be transported through pipelines. There are more than 5,000 kilometers of pipelines in Siberia, and, if the goal is to speed up the process, we can doubt focus is being put on security control of those thousands of kilometers. Both the oil spreading from broken pipelines and the lack of seriousness in their security control is leading to the pollution of several thousand hectares worth of soil. Moreover, the process of prospecting and exploiting oil deposits and especially the process of oil transportation heavily pollute areas where oil is extracted. Oil, drilling waste and boring solutions are the main pollutants from which, every year, about 30,000 hectares of land are damaged; high emissions of oil and extreme climate conditions have caused large-scale degradation of northern ecosystems. A few years ago the accumulated amount of oil emulsions and sludge in the local environment was estimated to be 1.2 billion tons.
When this oil spreads, it seeps into rivers and farmlands, becoming a thick, heavy mire that suffocates plants and animals. The oil also contaminates food and water supplies, destroying the livelihood of indigenous peoples and damaging local communities. Indigenous groups of the Russian north, Siberia and the far east of Russia, totaling about 250,000 people, are some of the most vulnerable groups in Russian society. Their economies and traditional lifestyles are directly dependent on fishing, hunting, deer-farming and gathering.
Siberian landscape. Photo: Efenstor on flickr
In the Komi village, near Ust’Usa, fishing, hunting and farming were the traditional professions of the Komi people, but today the Komi can no longer rely on these sources to sustain their livelihoods. Reindeer herders have to bring their animals further and further into the lands to provide them with untouched pastures — this is no longer a viable source of income for the herders. And, for those who stay on the land, the spring season is the worst of all; during the long Arctic winter, oil leaks unnoticed from numerous underground pipeline ruptures. When temperatures rise in summer, huge amounts of oil are flushed with the malt-water into the rivers and local village inhabitants can find oil everywhere. Some locals work for the oil giants. Although they tried to talk about the problem, they were told it would cost too much money to fix the pipelines.
Another indigenous group threatened by these events is the Nenets, one of the very last nomadic populations. Their community has survived only thanks to reindeer herding. They number 35,000 in Russia, and most of them live in the Lamal region. Ten thousand Nenets walk 1,000 kilometers a year looking for Tundra so they can feed their reindeer while the largest gas reserves in the world lie under their feet. After the fall of the Soviet Union, these gas reserves became a new threat. Since the 1970s, gas, oil and mining attracted a rising number of Russian workers who settled on the land. The soil-drilling industry infects and depletes the Nenets and their reindeer resources.
On Sakhaline Island, only a few tens on the 2,500 Nivkhs living on this rich-in-hydrocarbons territory still speak their own language and its various dialects. However, it’s not only about their language — the huge decrease of fishery resources (essential to their traditions) on the island was one of the main consequences of the offshore drilling. The continued drilling for oil is going to end their way of life by suppressing their resources while telling them that, thanks to technological progress, the drilling project respects the environment.
In summation, Russia’s expanding oil extraction is having dire consequences for both the Siberian environment and its indigenous peoples, but as long as the world’s insatiable demand for oil continues, oil magnates will keep on plundering the ecosystem.