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Russia's New Stick For Beating Oil Firms

Construction of an oil pipeline on Sakhalin Island. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Victoria Loginova
Moscow (AFP) Oct 22, 2006
Russian environmental authorities have become a new "pressure instrument" used by the state against oil companies often for political ends, analysts and campaigners said. Rosprirodnadzor, the country's environmental monitoring agency, is taking centre stage in Russia's business world just two years after the government body was set up.

The agency recently threatened to shut down a massive British-Japanese energy project on the island of Sakhalin in far eastern Russia, Sakhalin-2, and launched sweeping checks on Russian and foreign oil majors.

Oleg Mitvol, the charismatic deputy head of Rosprirodnadzor, travels the length and breadth of the country, accusing oil companies of polluting waterways, destroying forests and building pipelines in protected areas.

"Environmental activists are my colleagues. I know how to fight against the multinationals," said Mitvol, who has built up an image of himself as something of a crusader for nature and works with groups like Greenpeace and WWF.

A former business tycoon, he says he has enough money "not to be interested in the bribes" that are common practice in Russia in dealings between state officials and businesses.

Some Russian environmental groups, which have long campaigned for the state to take action against numerous violations to little effects, are overjoyed.

"Finally, the authorities are listening!" said Maxim Shingarkin of the Social-Ecological Union, a non-governmental organisation.

But other campaigners are not convinced and say the environmental concern is a mask for political goals. The proof, they say, is that some flagrant environmental violations are simply being ignored.

"The authorities are using Rosprirodnadzor as an instrument of pressure on companies," said Roman Pukalov from the Green Patrol organisation.

"Why don't they do anything about Dzerzhinsk?" Pukalov said in reference to a town east of Moscow that has been heavily polluted by a Soviet-era chemical weapons factory.

Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily this week said environmental monitoring was the equivalent of tax checks used to take apart Yukos, once Russia's biggest oil producer, in an inquiry seen by critics as steered by the Kremlin.

"Rosprirodnadzor has become a universal instrument in the hands of the state ... Its efficiency could be even greater than tax authorities," the newspaper said.

Yulia Latynina, an independent analyst, told AFP that Rosprirodnadzor is being used as a "warning ... intended to show that you have to come to an agreement" with the authorities.

In the Sakhalin-2 case, industry insiders say the checks are part of a wider government campaign for the Sakhalin Energy consortium led by British oil giant Shell to reduce costs and sell a stake to state gas monopoly Gazprom.

Another major project on the energy-rich island, Sakhalin-1, which is led by US oil major ExxonMobil, is to undergo environmental checks next month.

Russian newspapers say Rosneft, also a state energy giant, wants to increase its stake in the Sakhalin-1 project from 20 percent to 40 percent.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, even outwardly enthusiastic environmental campaigners fear their "tactical" alliance with Rosprirodnadzor could rapidly come to an end once the government gets what it wants.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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