Oil companies should act responsibly in the Arctic

In this Arctic.ru interview, Roman Polshvedkin, Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection in the Komi Republic, discusses new oil spills and technologies for containing them, unpleasant record-breaking incidents and volunteer projects.

Last year, you talked about oil wells in the republic that have not yet been eliminated. Are you making headway in this respect?

The issue of ownership of the surviving old oil wells remains unresolved. It goes without saying that the state, namely, the Soviet Union and now Russia, owned natural resources that had federal property status and used them rather actively and obtained profits in the form of severance tax. After their potential was used up, these oil wells fell into disuse and were abandoned. They are in need of attention because some of them pose an environmental hazard. Today, Russian regions are left to deal with this problem on their own. At the meeting the participants pointed out that it was necessary at the outset to conduct an inventory of the oil wells. Last year, we noted that this process would be very expensive because each well is different, and this calls for separate projects involving massive costs. I believe that this point should be included in the agenda of the national project Environment because the problem of abandoned oil wells can only be resolved through federal budget funding. Any region facing this problem will never resolve it.

Regarding long-term plans, we certainly need a federal program. It is unclear whether it will be included in the state contract of Russian geological holding company Rosgeologiya, as regards the elimination of abandoned oil wells, or whether some other option will be found, but it is necessary to discuss these mechanisms at federal level. Moreover, this discussion should involve the national Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

Here is a less positive aspect: In 2019, two such wells spewed oil-containing liquids onto the surface in broad daylight. It turned out that no one was able to stop these gushers and close down the wells. To resolve this problem, the region had to involve the republican gusher-prevention service and to allocate funding from the republic's budget. The region should not have to deal with this problem all alone.

During the meeting, you mentioned an unpleasant Guinness World Records entry dealing with the oil spill in the republic. Could you tell us more about this?

You are right, the largest ground oil spill in history was recorded in 1994 at the Kharyaga-Usinsk pipeline (Kharyaga — Main Facilities) linking several oilfields. At that time, the underground oil pipeline passing through a remote marshy section ruptured 16 times in 14 days, while pumping up to 16,000 metric tons of oil daily. It was impossible to shut it down immediately because fall was approaching and Russia risked losing its northern high-paraffin oil deposits. Although the pipe was ruptured and the oil was gushing to the surface, they continued to pump oil for a month and a half. Things were really tough in the early 1990s.

According to Russian and Western experts, an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 metric tons of oil-containing liquid leaked into Extreme North swamps and marshes. I am inclined to trust the latter estimate because I saw the situation myself and because I was involved in the cleanup operations that continued for three years. Unfortunately, not all of the spillage was cleaned up.

It took us 15 years to eliminate the consequences of that accident, that is, from 1994 until 2010. Lukoil Komi Co. that assumed control over these polluted territories also took part in cleanup operations some time later. It made the most substantial contribution to containing the oil spills and reclaiming local land plots. Fortunately, all these territories have now been cleaned and reclaimed, and we have learned some important lessons.

First, no one in the far north had ever faced such tremendous pollution in conditions of impassable swamps, marshes, numerous creeks, rivulets and rivers. At that time, our main task was to prevent these huge amounts of oil from penetrating creeks and rivers, primarily the Kolva River, the Usa and Pechora rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean. We realized that we would face environmental problems on an international scale if the rivers and ocean currents carried these pollutants toward the shores of littoral states. We had to contain the pollution in Russia and do our best to conduct effective cleanup operations. That was our important task.

At that time, we devised a unique three-level system for protecting the Kolva and Pechora rivers. The system's first level featured small locks (or hydraulic seals) on creeks. These locks also had special fish ladder facilities. They prevented oil from spreading and facilitated the removal of pollutants from the rivers. We also established river booms. These technologies passed the test with flying colors.

Over these 15 years, we also tested numerous oil spill removal technologies. First of all, we had to build roads and dams in order to contain each spill over a large area. After that, it became possible to clean up all the spillages. At that time, we also tested various technologies using microorganisms that destroy oil and petroleum derivatives with the help of additional aeration methods. This allowed us to remove the spill, to reclaim adjacent territories and to totally clean everything without damaging marshy soils. Today, everyone knows a lot about microbiology, but this method, contributed by the Komi Institute of Biology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was tested for the first time in the 1990s.

The Komi Republic has tremendous experience in this area. Do you share this experience with other regions that are facing the same challenges?

Not only Komi but all oil and gas producing regions face similar problems. But the Timano-Pechorskaya oil and gas province, in the Komi Republic and the Nenets Autonomous Area, is the oldest oil producing region. I believe that Western Siberia where many oil wells were drilled in the 1960s and the 1970s will also face the problem of defunct oil wells in the future. Therefore, our experience will prove valuable in this respect.

Today, I held talks with the Minister of Natural Resources of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). They are now drilling many wells, launching oil production, and they might face the same problems in the near future. We are sharing our experience in order to warn them and to prevent any negative scenarios.

What other common environmental problems do northern regions deal with?

The entire Arctic zone has some shared problems. Speaking at the previous forum, I noted that it was necessary to protect the Arctic in the north, rather than the Arctic itself, and to prevent pollutants, not just oil spills from seeping into rivers that then carry them into the Arctic Ocean. So far, there is no clear definition of what constitutes an emergency situation when oil spills on the ground or into bodies of water. Government Resolution No. 613 stipulates preset volumes, but orders of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Disaster Relief contain entirely different provisions. Quite often, oil companies prefer to use the volumes that they find most convenient in the event of such accidents. On the one hand, they understate the scale of pollution and the amount of oil and petroleum derivatives that have spilled onto the ground. On the other hand, they take advantage of the overstated volumes, listed in these documents, and declare an emergency situation. We need to approve an independent federal document for the Arctic. It should clearly regulate the developments leading toward the threshold after which an emergency situation sets in. We have to deal with this stumbling block; notably, this can be accomplished through dialogue with oil companies.

It is also necessary to determine the permissible residual oil pollution levels for Arctic soils. As a rule, this implies the tundra and a common approach for the entire Arctic zone. This matter has been discussed in great detail for quite a while.

There is the position of nature conservation organizations regarding a ban on the operation of oil pipelines that have come to the end of their service life. We need extremely tough regulations for the Arctic because of its aggressive environment, temperature fluctuations and natural conditions for pumping oil-containing liquids that are also usually aggressive.

In some cases, oil companies lack sufficient resources and funding to deal with major accidents. Therefore such companies need to stockpile their own assets for coping with oil spills. A bill aiming to set up such resources in the form of bank guarantees, insurance policies and corporate assets was submitted to the State Duma 18 months ago. It is high time our MPs started discussing this document once again because this is already becoming an example of a certain legal sloppiness.

Oil companies operating in the Arctic should clearly comprehend their responsibility. They arrive there in order to obtain certain natural resources, and they should assume complete responsibility, including restrictive procedures, in conditions of a fragile ecosystem. In effect, they should assume the financial burden linked with oil pipelines and a sufficient amount of funding to help prevent hypothetical accidents and conduct effective cleanup operations in the event of any emergencies.

What do you think about building large production facilities in the Arctic? Is the game worth the candle?

Our unique and largely untouched Arctic contains tremendous natural resources, including oil, gas and solid-state minerals. It goes without saying that we should stipulate certain environmental standards aiming to preserve this fragile nature.

Regarding major production facilities, we should not reduce them to one and the same level. There are large deposits, there are deposits where it is necessary to build large ore-processing factories near mines. Today, the experience of major companies shows that it is possible to implement ambitious projects in the Arctic. This includes the LNG project and oil production projects in the Yamal Peninsula. Indeed, vast experience, including environmental protection experience, has been accumulated there.

Speaking of oil and gas production, there is the continued active development of the continental shelf. This concerns production and prospecting projects. First of all, it is necessary to develop projects and to stake the Russian Federation's claims in the Arctic zone, to display our economic presence and to show that Russia's potential continues to expand in the Arctic, as well. Therefore it is impossible to say that we need to locate large or small production facilities in this or that area. Everything should hinge on economic efficiency and the appropriate environmental considerations.

Can you share your plans for the future? What tasks do you set for yourself and the ministry in 2020?

First, we have already reached a point when it is necessary to include the question of the above-mentioned old disused wells in a federal document that would record accumulated environmental damage and stipulate funding for the years to come. We continue to formalize this procedure in line with specific documents, and I hope that we will complete our work within a year.

Second, we have an excellent proving ground for upgrading our technologies, and we will continue to cooperate with scientists in such areas as removing oil spills and reclaiming polluted territories.

Third, the Arctic zone now includes the Vorkuta municipal area. The Russian Government has received documents on making the Ust-Tsilma, Usinsk (where active oil production is sited) and Inta districts part of the Arctic zone. Hopefully, these territories will also receive the status of Arctic districts. There are plans to develop a network for monitoring the atmosphere and water bodies in line with this work. Today, we need to set up a stationary observation post in Vorkuta, and this work will continue, no matter what.

Regarding volunteers, I met with young people from the Green Arctic program who had already started working in Vorkuta. Our higher education institutions, including the Syktyvkar University, as well as the Ukhta Technical University that trains oil and gas specialists, are extremely interested in various Arctic volunteer projects and waste-removal operations. We have told these young people that we will submit our proposals. And, if necessary, we will set up an independent volunteer squad in the republic under Green Arctic auspices.