For decades, Russia’s oil giants have been polluting parts of the country’s once thriving landscape, often in secret, spilling oil onto the land and into the Arctic Ocean, poisoning the water and destroying the livelihood of local communities and Indigenous Peoples.
Greenpeace has investigated and documented the ongoing disaster, revealing how the oil seeps into rivers and farmland. This leaked oil spreads and becomes a thick, heavy mire, suffocating plants and animals, and forcing people to abandon the area. The oil contaminates food and water supplies, and people live with the knowledge that their once clean rivers, forests and air now pose serious health risks.
After analyzing satellite images to identify spill sites, Greenpeace staff travelled to this and other Arctic and subarctic regions to investigate and document the spills and expose the extent of the damage. All these photos were taken over a three-day period in just one of the many oil spill hotspots in Russia.
Russia’s lax regulation of its fossil fuel industry is pushing the country toward a crisis point as regular spills and leaks are poisoning drinking water, killing livestock, and fouling rivers.
The pollution problem in Russia has reached staggering proportions. According to a recently released Greenpeace report, over ten thousand oil spills occur each year in the country due to ruptured pipelines.
Experts estimate that these spills pour some 4.5 million tons of oil products into the environment per year—representing nearly 1% of all oil extracted in Russia. Meanwhile, the consequences of an increasingly out-of-control industry are on display across the country.
In May 2014, an oil storage facility near the Russian town of Usinsk caught fire, unleashing dramatic plumes of jet-black smoke. The disaster there was doubly notable for occurring at the same site as a record-breaking oil spill that flushed crude into a tributary if the Kolva River and killed livestock that ate oil-covered grass. Oil tainted waters then flowed into the Pechora River, and ultimately into the Arctic Ocean.
In the aftermath of the spill, residents of the region estimated it to only represent a fraction of the oil spilled since extraction operations began there in 1974.
All over Russia, similar crises have been playing out for years, and in some cases, decades. Oil companies regularly avoid reporting spills to the government and instead perform makeshift reclamation operations, disguising environmental damages but not remedying them. Sergey Donskoy, the country’s Minister of Natural Resources, has publicly stated that his agency lacks reliable information on oil spills and does not collect data on the volume of oil lost and its resulting damage to the environment.
When BP spilt 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the whole world took notice. The Russian oil industry spills more than 30 million barrels on land each year — seven times the amount that escaped during the Deepwater Horizon disaster — often under a veil of secrecy and corruption. And every 18 months, more than four million barrels spews into the Arctic Ocean, where it becomes everyone’s problem.
The cycle of oil, corruption and pollution
Intensive development work carried out by the oil and gas industry is generally accompanied by large-scale PR campaigns. These are focused on making local residents believe that oil drilling and production are absolutely harmless and will positively contribute to the overall development of the region and its infrastructure.