Russian Oil Ambitions Collide with Ancient Reindeer Traditions

Russia possesses nine of the top 15 oil fields in the Arctic and enormous gas reserves, according to the USGS. The largest deposits sit in the Yenisey-Khatanga basin, the West Siberian Basin and the Laptev Sea Shelf. But drilling interests could collide with the subsistence activities in areas rich in tradition among Native Yamal reindeer herding culture.

Virtually all terrestrial and aquatic components of these oil and gas fields are seasonally exploited by migratory herders, hunters, fishers and domesticated reindeer, according to a 2008 report from the University of Lapland in northern Finland.

“Reindeer peoples are frequently exposed to hard market conditions, particularly where oil and gas mining has become the principal factor in the development of Arctic areas,” says Dmitri Khorolya, a Russian Nenet and president of the Reindeer Herders’ Union of Russia.

“Industrial activity in the [Russian] north has resulted in the destruction of many thousands of hectares of reindeer pasture,” Khorolya said. “The process is continuing. In some regions pasture degradation threatens preservation of reindeer husbandry and the anxiety of reindeer herders for their future should be heard by the world community.” These tundra ecosystems are considered vulnerable in part because even relatively small-scale, low-intensity impacts can accumulate.

Transneft, Russia’s state-owned oil pipeline monopoly, plans to build the world’s longest oil pipeline, 4,188 kilometers in length, to transport oil from western and central Siberian oilfields to ports in the Sea of Japan. It will run close to the environmentally sensitive Lake Baikal, and under the Lena River, the world’s 10th largest river and a tributary to the Laptev Sea.

Much of the pipeline is being laid in a trench through permafrost with no temperature controls of the sort seen in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

Local activists believe that trenching method is more likely to cause an oil spill because the Lena River crossing is located only 4 kilometers away from the mouth of another large river. Numerous violations have occurred during construction, according to Pacific Environment, which monitors the project with local partners.

BY PAUL KOBERSTEIN

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