Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Gas Pipeline Project Runs Roughshod Over Laws, Environment

Paul Goble

London, May 19 – Even as ecologists were celebrating a rare victory in the Russian Supreme Court, reports from the Komi Republic show that Gazprom’s construction of a 1100-kilometer pipeline from the Yamal peninsula involves “the crudest violations” of Russian law “and not only ecological rules,” according to local officials and journalists.
And consequently, even though the Supreme Court’s ruling is welcome, it appears likely from these reports that neither it nor the law nor the complaints of the people most directly affected will do much to rein in the actions of an enterprise which answers every complaint with the slogan “everything for the pipeline” (www.arnews.ru/news/1162043.html).
Last Thursday, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that all firms must pay government levies to defray the cost of the environmental damage they may due and that local and regional officials cannot reduce or eliminate those payments in order to help those enterprises and institutions they may favor (www.gzt.ru/society/2009/05/14/223008.html).
The case began when a judge in Tatarstan challenged the legality of Kazan’s decision to come up with a list of enterprises which either have to pay less than the full amount of fees for damaging environment or no fees at all. The Tatarstan government said it was operating according to the provisions of a 1992 federal decree.
According to the Tatar judge, that federal decree contradicts several provisions of the budget code and the federal law on the environment and should be declared null and void. The court agreed, ruling that the government does not have the power to reduce or eliminate such payments unless there is specific legislation allowing it to do so. A decree is not enough.
But the way in which Gazprom is acting as it builds the Bovanenkovo-Ukhta pipeline suggests that neither this decision nor any laws on the books or any complaints by people affected by its actions will have much of an impact on the behavior of a firm that views the export of gas as more important than any law or even human life.
When public hearings were held about this project in the summer of 2005, people in the Komi republic along the proposed route expressed doubts that the construction of this pipeline could take place without serious environmental harm. And they have been proved right, local journalists say.
Gazprom has ignored many of the provisions in the project plan. It has left massive amounts of trash along the construction site. It has used heavy equipment in places where it has harmed the environment. And it has failed to conduct the required environmental monitoring (www.barentsobserver.com/gazprom-pipeline-project-harming-tundra.4590661-116320.html).
Moreover, the company has routinely ignored the property rights of villagers, but when the latter have complained to officials and even prosecutors, they have received little support. After local activists videotaped some of the damage the firm had inflicted on their land, however, officials did fine the firm but the fines were so small that they had no impact on its behavior.
Instead of building required water purification systems which would have cost 2.5 million rubles, Gazprom elected to just dump waste into the water, and instead of making 6 million rubles (180,000 US dollars) in payments to the government to cover environmental damage, it paid only 140,000 rubles (4,000 US dollars).
In other ways too, Gazprom showed its contempt for the law. It operated machinery illegally in such a way, local people say, that it showed its willingness “to sacrifice people in order to achieve instant success.” And its own workers, who are not highly paid despite assumptions to the contrary, have their rights regularly violated.
The Moscow court case is certain to attract far more attention, but the way Gazprom is acting appears not only far more typical of how business is conducted in Russia today but also to be the way it is likely to be conducted in the future regardless of what constitutional niceties the court says it is insisting on.

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