Russian oil rig sinking casts doubt on Arctic plan

By Nataliya Vasilyeva

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 23 2011 4:10 a.m. MST

Unlike the Kolskaya, which was carrying no oil when it sank, the Arctic platform could potentially cause a disastrous spill if it capsized in icy, rough seas.

The distance from shore would also complicate any rescue or cleanup mission. The nearest port of any size is in Murmansk, some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away.

Even in warmer, more hospitable waters, accidents at oil platforms have been disastrous.

A giant oil slick was approaching the coast of Nigeria on Friday after what Royal Dutch Shell said was a spill during the transfer of oil from its floating platform in the offshore field to a waiting tanker. The spill came less than a week after Shell received approval from the U.S. government to drill exploratory wells off Alaska's northwest coast, in the Chukchi Sea near Russian waters.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the 2010 explosion of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and led to more than 200 million gallons (4.8 million barrels) of oil spewing from a well deep beneath the sea.

Russia's parliament gave preliminary approval in September to a bill intended to tighten regulations on oil companies working in the Arctic.

Yekaterina Khmelyova, an environment law officer at the WWF, said the bill does not do enough to hold the oil companies publicly accountable or to guarantee a full assessment of the environmental risks. She said environmentalists and the business community are working on a new draft that among other things would provide for the creation of clean-up funds.

Oil industry experts also have expressed doubts about Gazprom's expertise in offshore drilling in the Arctic as well as the platform's design.

They have questioned the economic justifications for the project. The oil in the Pechora field is of low quality and the project will be loss-making without tax breaks, said Valery Nesterov, a senior analyst with the Moscow-based investment bank Troika Dialog. For state-controlled Gazprom, the Arctic project appears to be more of strategic importance than about any immediate economic benefits, he said.

"This is clearly a strategic task that the company is executing," Nesterov said. "It looks like Russia is not going to give up that strategy since the interests of ship yards, machinery producers and, possibly, the military are involved."

Four years ago, Russia staked its claim to supremacy in the Arctic by planting a titanium flag on the ocean floor and arguing that an underwater ridge connected the country directly to the North Pole. The United States does not recognize the Russian assertion and has its own claims, along with Denmark, Norway and Canada.

Russia, Canada and Denmark are planning to their respective file claims to the ridge to the United Nations.

In past years, Russian ship yards and machinery producers have been able to stay afloat largely thanks to large orders coming from state-owned plants and government-sponsored projects. A large-scale oil and gas development of the Arctic is likely to give a welcome boost to both industries.

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