Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday ordered a giant new oil pipeline to be routed away from Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, delighting environmentalists eager to protect its hundreds of unique species.
He said the pipeline, which will link Siberian oil fields and the Pacific Coast, must totally avoid the lake, which is highly earthquake-prone and which scientists say would be permanently damaged if oil spilled from the pipeline.
Putin backed a plan from scientist Nikolai Laverov, who proposed moving the pipeline to more than 25 miles away from the lake -- from just 800 yards away as proposed by oil pipeline monopoly Transneft.
“The pipeline system we are talking about must go along the watershed, north of the watershed of Lake Baikal,” Putin told a gathering of officials in the Siberian town of Tomsk.
The pipeline will carry 1.6 million barrels a day to Asia and revolutionize the pattern of Russia’s energy supplies.
Putin’s intervention flew in the face of months of advice from his top officials, including the state environmental watchdog, provoking cynicism that he was playing the “kind tsar” and had whipped up the uproar in order to defuse it.
State television showed Putin gesturing with a red pen on a giant map where the black line of the pipeline touched the tip of Baikal, saying it must be moved to the north.
“I have said to the north, and where to the north is already not important ... we must do everything not just to minimize this danger but to exclude it,” he said.
Bigger than all Great Lakes
Putin’s order overruled the state environmental watchdog’s recommendations which supported the Transneft plan to route the pipeline next to the lake, which contains more water than all North America’s Great Lakes put together.
Many scientists had rejected the watchdog’s decision, saying it was driven by business interests.
They said Baikal, which is so seismically active that it widens by an inch per year, was too unstable to host any pipeline at all.
Among other examples of its unique flora and fauna, it is home to a species of freshwater seal that has baffled scientists who cannot understand how it got there.
Environmental groups said Putin’s decision showed the government had listened to their protests against the threat hanging over the “pearl of Siberia.”
“We welcome this decision, and see it as a sign that the government does not only listen to those people who have political and business power,” a Greenpeace spokesman said.
Industry sees populist move
But an oil industry source suggested the Kremlin had whipped up the furor, to give the impression Putin listened to the opinion of the people in the year of his chairmanship of the Group of Eight rich nations.
“This move was jointly masterminded by Transneft and Putin to show how keen the Russian president was to defend the interests of the environmentalists,” the source said.
Transneft has earlier said rerouting the pipe further from the northern end of the lake would cost up to a billion dollars.