Andrei Pronin, Associated Press
MOSCOW — The sinking of a floating oil rig that left more than 50 crew dead or missing is intensifying fears that Russian companies searching for oil in remote areas are unprepared for emergencies — and could cause a disastrous spill in the pristine waters of the Arctic.
Only four months ago, Russian energy giant Gazprom sent Russia's first oil platform to the environmentally sensitive region, and industry experts and environmentalists warned it is unfit for the harsh conditions and is too far from rescue crews to be reached quickly in case of an accident. They are demanding Russia put Arctic oil projects on hold.
Russia is the world's largest oil producer, but it extracts most of its oil onshore, with no more than 2 percent of its production coming from mature offshore fields in the warm Black and Caspian seas and relatively new fields just off Sakhalin Island in the far east.
As Russia's core oil fields in Eastern Siberia are depleted, companies are looking north. The government hopes that up to 80 million tons of oil will be produced annually in the Arctic by 2030.
Russia is trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic, which is believed to hold up to a quarter of the Earth's undiscovered oil and gas. By speeding up the Arctic oil project, the government is strengthening its bid.
The Kolskaya floating oil rig that capsized and sank in the Sea of Okhotsk on Dec. 18 had done exploratory drilling for Gazprom Neft Shelf, a subsidiary of Gazprom. It was being towed back to an eastern Russian port in a fierce storm when a strong wave broke some of its equipment and portholes, and it capsized in the choppy water.
Gazprom is now pioneering the oil development of Russia's sector of the Arctic and was the first Russian company to dispatch a drilling rig to the Pechora Sea in northwest Russia.
Russian oil companies have never operated in weather conditions as harsh as those found in the ice-bound Arctic, where ice ridges are meters (yards) deep and storms are frequent. The Kolskaya accident has reinforced fears that they are unprepared to meet the challenges.
"This tragedy has once again reminded us of how high the risks of offshore accidents are," said Alexei Knizhnikov, an oil and gas policy officer with the World Wildlife Fund.
WWF, Greenpeace and five regional Russian environmental organizations signed a petition on Thursday calling for a parliamentary investigation and urging the government to suspend the oil projects for now.
The petition accuses government agencies of failing to enforce environmental and safety regulations and says that current laws are inadequate for dealing with the magnitude of risk in the Arctic.
Environmentalists first raised their concerns when Gazprom announced in August that it was sending its platform to the Arctic for exploratory drilling in the Pechora oil field, which holds some 6.6 million tons of oil.
The platform's underwater section was built in Russia in the 1990s, while its upper part comes from a platform built in Scotland in 1982 and decommissioned from the North Sea in 2002.
Gazprom insists the Prirazlomnaya platform, billed as the first to be ice resistant, is safe and contains no old equipment except for its frame.
"We've done our best to implement the latest technology and regulations to prevent any accidents," Vladimir Vovk, chief of Gazprom's department for the management of equipment and technologies in developing marine fields, said at a news conference in September.
Environmentalists question both the state of the equipment and the platform's design. Because the Prirazlomnaya is situated hundreds of kilometers (miles) offshore, it is designed to store huge quantities of oil until tankers can arrive to collect it. The platform's storage tanks can hold up to 120,000 tons (840,000 barrels).
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