May 4, 2006
Sometimes Governments Listen: Threat to Lake Baikal Averted
Last week, while I was still away, President Vladimir Putin
ordered the rerouting of a Siberian oil pipeline to avoid the northern shore of Lake Baikal, a world heritage site. See UNESCO site on Lake Baikal
Rare public protests followed the approval in March of the initial route, with rallies from Moscow to Irkutsk, the Siberian region bordering the lake. "It was not a huge wave," Aleksandr Shuvalov, deputy executive director of Greenpeace Russia, said of the protests, "but it was a wave." The pipeline's route, so close to Lake Baikal, raised concerns that an oil spill in the seismically active region could contaminate Lake Baikal, which holds more than 20 percent of the world's fresh water and an abundance of unique wildlife species. Not only environmental groups, but also Russian scientists opposed Transneft's planned route. A commission of specialists from the Russian Academy of Sciences initially opposed the route on environmental grounds. Its recommendation was rejected and a new review ordered with new specialists.
Mr. Putin's decision on Wednesday was an unexpected reversal and appeared choreographed for state television networks. Meeting with federal and regional officials in Tomsk, a Siberian city, he publicly chided Transneft's director, Semyon M. Vainshtok, after asking if there was an alternative to the contested route. "Since you hesitate, it means that there is such a possibility," Mr. Putin told a visibly uncomfortable Mr. Vainshtok. "If there had not been such a possibility, you would have said 'no' without any doubt."
Mr. Putin then ordered that the route hew more closely to one previously recommended by the Academy of Sciences but rejected by a regulatory agency. He said a new route should be charted at least 40 kilometers, or nearly 25 miles, from Lake Baikal. That would put it outside of Baikal's watershed, environmental groups said.
Mr. Shuvalov called it "a victory of common sense." The reversal underscored Mr. Putin's highly centralized power and his penchant for dramatic gestures. Wielding a pen in front of an oversize map of the Baikal region, he swept aside decisions by several government agencies, as well as those by Transneft, which had warned that finding another route would be prohibitively expensive.
Mr. Vainshtok and other officials from Transneft could not be reached for comment. They had said that the planned route would be safe and that moving it could add nearly $1 billion to the cost of the pipeline. When Mr. Vainshtok, in the televised exchange, suggested that the pipeline would have to move "much farther north," Mr. Putin responded curtly. "If there is at least a tiny chance of polluting Baikal," he said, "we, thinking of future generations, must do everything not only to minimize this threat, but to exclude it."
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