Russia's 'sacred sea' threatened by oil pipeline

Posted: 9 April 2006

Lake Baikal, the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world and a vital habitat for plant and animal life, is under threat by the construction of an oil pipeline.

The proposed pipeline would come within one kilometre of the lake and cross 10 major rivers that flow into it, making its waters vulnerable to oil spills. An important World Heritage Site, Lake Baikal now faces ecological catastrophe.[But see latest development in footnote below.]

Sunset over Lake Baikal © Greenpeace / V.Potansky
Sunset over Lake Baikal © Greenpeace / V.Potansky
Sunset over Lake Baikal© Greenpeace / V.Potansky
In the event of an accident (as was recently witnessed in Alaska) up to 40,000 tons of oil could enter the lake within one half hour. Additionally, the area is one of the most seismically active in Siberia, with major earthquakes occurring throughout history in the region.

Pipeline project

In controversial circumstances, the state organisation responsible for carrying out environmental impact assessments approved the project sponsored by the state oil pipeline monopoly, Transneft.

Since 2003, Transneft has been planning to build the world's longest pipeline, running 4,188 km (2,602 miles) from central Siberia to the Russian Far East and the Sea of Japan to transport oil to the markets of Pacific Asia over the northern end of Lake Baikal. In late 2003 the pipeline project failed to pass through the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The main reason why the project was turned down then was because the pipe was to have crossed the catchment basin of Lake Baikal, a World Natural Heritage Site since 1996, just 12 km away from the water edge.

In 2004 Transneft modified the pipeline project and moved the pipe to a distance of 80 to 100km to the north from Lake Baikal. Despite fierce public opposition to the project because of other pipeline-related environmental risks and a huge scandal around the state EIA, this new project was approved by the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Atomic Supervision (Rostechnadzor or FSETAN), an independent governmental agency responsible for environmental protection.

The oil pipeline will hurt nature in the Baikal region. © Greenpeace / V. Potansky
The oil pipeline will hurt nature in the Baikal region. © Greenpeace / V. Potansky
The oil pipeline will hurt nature in the Baikal region© Greenpeace / V. Potansky
However, in March 2005 Transneft is reported to have illegally started surveying activities within Lake Baikal. In some places the pipe would run as close as 800 metres away from the lake. Moreover it runs through seismically active mountainous areas north of lake. In its proposed route through the Severomuisky Range, the pipeline could be ruptured in earthquakes, landslides, mudflows, and other geological events which would cause both considerable economic losses and irreversible pollution of the Lake Baikal watershed and the lake itself.

Map: oil pipeline routes, north Lake Baikal
Map: oil pipeline routes, north Lake Baikal

Species-rich

Lake Baikal lies in Southern Siberia in Russia, between Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and Buryatia to the southeast, near the city of Irkutsk. Lake Baikal derives its name from Tatar "Bai-Kul" - "rich lake". In Russian, it is traditionally called a sea, and in the Buryat and Mongol languages it is called Dalai-Nor, or "Sacred Sea".

The extent of biodiversity present in Lake Baikal is equalled by few other lakes in the world. As many as 852 species and 233 varieties of algae and 1550 species and varieties of animals inhabit the lake; many of them are endemic species. Of note is an endemic subspecies of the omul fish (Coregonus autumnalis migratorius), which is fished, smoked, and sold on all markets around the lake. For many travelers on the Trans-Siberian railway, purchasing smoked omul is one of the highlights on the long journey. The world-famous Baikal Seal (Phoca sibirica), the only mammal living in the lake, is found throughout the whole area of the lake.

Baikal has as much water as all of North America's Great Lakes combined - about 20 per cent of the total fresh water on the Earth. Baikal is renowned for the unique clarity of its waters. Known as the "Galapagos of Russia", its age and isolation have produced one of the world's richest and most unusual freshwater faunas, which is of exceptional value to evolutionary science.

The shore of Olkhon Island. © Greenpeace / V.Potansky
The shore of Olkhon Island. © Greenpeace / V.Potansky
The shore of Olkhon Island© Greenpeace / V.Potansky
The lake is completely surrounded by mountains, technically protected as a national park and contains 22 small islands, the largest - Olkhon - being 72 km-long. The lake is fed by some 300 inflowing rivers - the six main ones being Selenga, the source of some of Baikal's pollution, Chikoy, Khiloh, Uda, Barguzin and Upper Angara. The lake is drained through a single outlet, the Angara River.

It is likely that only the intervention of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, can prevent the oil pipeline project from going ahead.

Thousands of signatures have been collected opposing the project via the Internet, and thousands more have been collected in the Irkutsk region in a petition for President Putin to call off the project. To sign the petition, please visit: www.babr.ru/?pt=truba

UPDATE: According to a BBC report on April 26, President Putin has intervened to order the planned pipeline to be moved 25 miles (40 kms) away from the lake. While campaigners still have other environmental concerns, this is seen as a victory for their campaign. The BBC report may be seen here

Even more recent news indicates that the route is now planned to go much further from the lake. See: here

Related links:

Baikal Environmental Wave

Wikipedia - Lake Baikal Source

From our website, see:

Lake Baikal: a threatened jewel