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Baikal Watch

Baikal Watch

Oil and Politics
Russia, China, and Japan are competing over major deposits of oil and natural gas recently discovered in the Lake Baikal region. No one knows yet just how large these Siberian deposits are. Like the oil and gas currently being developed on the Pacific Island of Sakhalin (just north of Japan), there is speculation that the volume of these deposits may rival those found in the Middle East.

Local people in the region are beginning to realize that they will gain little from these discoveries. Siberians cannot afford to buy their own oil and gas. Russia's state-owned and private oil companies would reap greater profits if they sold these petroleum resources to their Asian neighbors instead, particularly the eager markets of China and Japan, whose economies are thriving.

Siberia is experiencing an extreme power crisis. Several cities along the Pacific are encouraging residents to resettle elsewhere, primarily because of the expense of heat and power during the long northern winters.

The decision-makers and oil developers in Russia are engaging in a high-stakes bargaining match that might have long-term consequences on many political fronts in this part of the world. Apparently, the Russian government is waiting to see who will bid higher for Siberian oil.

The Japanese are offering to invest billions to build a 2,500-mile pipeline from the Baikal region directly to the port of Nakhodka. From there, tankers would transport the oil to Japan and other markets. Meanwhile, the Chinese have signed a number of agreements under which Russia would build the pipeline up to the Chinese border, and then China would pay for the pipeline from there. Obviously Japan's offer to build the entire pipeline at its own expense is more enticing.

Since the collapse of post-Soviet industry, the policy of Moscow has been that the sale of raw resources abroad would be the mainstay of economic growth. Siberia has only 10 million residents so there is little justification in the eyes of policy-makers to keep the oil for Siberians.

The original route for one of the pipelines to China would have cut across a national park and nature reserve near Baikal. At the time of preliminary negotiations, this fact did not concern the developers or the authorities in Moscow--even though building pipelines within parks is expressly forbidden by Russian law.

Nevertheless, when the Japanese presented their offers, the Russians began using arguments set forth by local environmentalists and park residents to back out of the deals with China. Officials informed the Chinese partners that this southern pipeline might not be possible after all, since it would be illegal to build to the south of Baikal, where the parks block the way. Moscow, not known for its great environmental record, is using environmental precautions for economic gain.

Of course, many environmentalists would prefer that the oil and gas be left in the ground. The most dangerous means for transporting oil is by overseas tanker. Shipping the oil to Japan might invite even greater disasters along the fragile coasts of Russia and Japan, where some of the last concentrations of several whale species and other rare marine mammals are found. A pipeline to China would be wholly overland. Nevertheless, even the northern route would likely traverse the Baikal watershed, and a major spill would put Baikal in great peril.

The recent arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then-CEO of the privately owned Yukos Oil Company, complicates the situation. Yukos was the prime proponent and investor behind building the pipeline to China. Now, many of Yukos' oil contracts in the region are being given to other state-run (or "Moscow-friendly") oil companies, ones that might, in return, run the oil and gas to the Pacific rather than to China.

Conflicting interests over oil will not soothe the already prickly relations between Russia, China, and Japan. A mere 20 years ago, there were border skirmishes between Russia and China, and Japan still has not signed a WWII peace treaty with Russia. (Both Sakhalin Island and the nearby Kurile Islands belonged to Japan before 1945, but the USSR seized them upon the collapse of the Japanese Empire.)

Throughout all this, environmentalists are working with local people to ensure that their interest in protecting the natural areas around Baikal is taken into account. Some of the larger organizations in Siberia--such as the Baikal Environmental Wave, and the Baikal Center for Environmental Expertise--have already conducted their own comprehensive environmental impact assessments on the various pipeline routes. They were the ones who pointed out that laying these pipelines through Tunka National Park, or near the shores of Lake Baikal itself, would violate Russian law.

Baikal Watch recognizes that there is a greater responsibility in helping local groups fight against these pipelines as well. Now more than ever, it is critical to present alternatives that will improve the economic situation in this region. The preservation of the parks around Lake Baikal--not to mention the preservation of Baikal itself as an intact ecosystem of global importance--is the key to the future wellbeing of the region.

For this reason, Baikal Watch continues to arrange ecotours to the Baikal area. In addition, Baikal Watch is helping local groups build The Great Baikal Trail, which we hope will attract eco-tourists. The profits from these tourists will find their way into local pockets, helping those who would prefer not to have pipelines and oil spills in their own backyards.

Summer 2004 ecotour

Renowned photographer and travel-writer Boyd Norton will lead an ecotour to the Baikal region this summer, accompanied by Baikal Watch staff Ariadna Reida. This will be Boyd's eighth expedition to Baikal. A group of 12-18 participants will travel to Zabaikalski and Baikalski National Parks, where they will travel by boat to enjoy the beauty of Baikal up close. We will also arrange special visits to protected islands to photograph the charming Baikal seals. A two-day trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad and visits to Buddhist temples will provide enough variety to make this a fascinating tour. Participants will stay with homestay hosts, allowing them to become friends with local Siberians.

Trip dates are from July 27 to August 18, 2004. This is when temperatures should be comfortably warm. All profits go to the national parks at Baikal and to environmental groups protecting the public interest in the face of the oil developers in the region. For more information, please e-mail, or call (415) 788-3666 ext. 109.


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