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Russia defines a legislative approach to developing the Arctic

Russia defines a legislative approach to developing the Arctic

10.11.2011 — Analysis

The International Arctic Legal Forum was held in Salekhard. Politicians, scientists, businessmen, and foreign experts gathered in the Arctic Circle to hammer out approaches to ensure that the natural resources of the Arctic are developed safely. This columnist for RusBusinessNews got to listen to some of their remarks, and their common thread was that Russian law needs to be brought in line with international standards. Without a mechanism to correct damage or to insure against risks to the environment, not only might the traditional habitat of the peoples of the North be destroyed, but it could lead to irreversible changes to the earth's climate.

Well-known Russian, Swedish, and Norwegian experts took part in the forum's roundtables and sessions, where they discussed the problems faced by the indigenous peoples of the North, updating laws related to the use of subsurface resources, and other issues associated with international cooperation in the Arctic region. The major focus was on how to preserve the fragile Arctic ecosystem, dispose of associated petroleum gas, and ensure the rights and social safety nets of the people who live in permafrost regions.

These are all problems resulting from the scope of the work that will soon be done in the Arctic Circle. According to Dmitry Kobylkin, the governor of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, the proven hydrocarbon reserves in the Polar Continental Shelf will allow the production of 800 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year (about 500 billion cubic meters are currently extracted in Russia), over the course of 80 years. The sheer magnitude of the work to develop the continental shelf requires a similar approach to the development of the northern territories.

Aleksandr Viktorov, the Russian deputy minister of regional development, told the forum participants that a strategy to develop the Arctic zone has already been prepared. This strategy includes the development of a number of laws intended to both create comfortable living conditions in the region for the inhabitants and scientists, as well as to ensure the preservation of the region's ecosystem. The experts note that Russia is only beginning to take steps to address this issue.

Torleif Haugland, the managing director of the Carbon Limits company, claimed that the burning of associated petroleum gas (APG) is especially dangerous in the Arctic, because the unburned carbon particles, when mixed with carbon dioxide and methane, act as a catalyst for global climate change. It is often difficult to find a way to dispose of this gas, because of the enormous distance between the production and consumption sites, the expense associated with processing the gas, and so on. Government rulings aimed at reducing the flaring of associated petroleum gas are often ineffective. According to Torleif Haugland, the law may strictly specify procedures to reduce harmful emissions, but the real issue is monitoring the implementation of the law. Large fines are of little help in increasing investment in reducing the flaring of associated petroleum gas. Thus, a number of countries permit flaring, but methods have been developed to determine the most cost-effective way to dispose of the APG. If it's financially worthwhile, producers will be obligated to invest in the means to reduce emissions.

This expert claims that every country regulates the flaring of associated petroleum gas primarily based on whether it is practical and politically feasible. There is no one, single, global prescription for effective regulation. Some governments resort to a carrot-and-stick policy, others prefer to come to agreements with oil producers that are based on economic viability. But Torleif Haugland is convinced that in the future, the growing shortage of natural gas will have an effect on the reduction of flaring.

Currently, Russia pays little attention to the social and economic aspects of projects that develop subsurface resources. Valery Kryukov, the deputy director of the Siberian branch of the Institute of the Economics and Organization of Industrial Production of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that complete and professional cost-benefit analyses are not done even on onshore fields. Nevertheless, Russia is moving rapidly to develop the continental shelf and the Arctic territory. This expert is convinced that there is an urgent need to change the existing policy, which is based on politics, to one grounded in a long-term economic outlook, to avoid harming either the business environment, the inhabitants of the Arctic, or the neighboring states.

Inna Ignatyeva, an assistant professor in the department of environmental and land rights at Lomonosov Moscow State University's law school, pointed out the weakness of the environmental protection movement in the Arctic. She claims that Russia has no laws to protect that unique ecological system, nor any regulations aimed at correcting harm caused to the soil or to the natural world in general. Exactly what construes an ecological disaster in the Arctic has not yet been defined, nor any provision made for insurance against the risks of working in specially protected areas. The fact that Russia has no laws similar to those that have been in place for almost 20 years in other countries paints a fairly clear picture of the state of the environmental protection movement in the Russian Arctic.

Dmitry Khorol, the president of the Russian Union of Reindeer Herders, is afraid that industrial development of the Arctic will result in the disappearance of reindeer pastures and migration routes. Aileen Espíritu, the director of the Barents Institute (University of Tromso), confirms that intensive industrial development can cause conflicts with the indigenous population. To prevent this, Canadian and Norwegian laws require the establishment of channels for communication and consultation with the local communities. Another question is how many concessions can be made to nomadic people whose demands sometimes cannot be met.

Dmitry Kobylkin, the governor of Yamal, is convinced that only laws and strict compliance with those laws can ensure human comfort and safety, as well as the protection of the natural world from barbaric destruction. "Social issues are very important in Yamal - especially the protection of mothers and children, the guaranteed rights of the indigenous peoples of the North, and the preservation of the environment. We are working hard, within the limits of our authority, to get laws passed that address these issues", he claimed.

But some important questions cannot be resolved at the regional level. Dmitry Kobylkin cites the examples of the residence registration of people pursuing a nomadic lifestyle, clarifying the legal status of camps established for the gas-production shift crews, the legal regulation of the operation of kindergartens and schools that serve the nomadic population, and many other issues.

Much of what the regional authorities proposed was included in the International Arctic Forum's resolution. The participants believe it is vital to bring Russian law into conformity with international treaties concerning the Arctic and to create restricted-use maritime zones in order to preserve the biological diversity of this region. It has been suggested that Russia create an Integrated Arctic Socially-Oriented Observation System (IASOS) in the next few years (as a type of national project), to help monitor the social conditions in the Arctic.

Vladimir Petrov

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