Putin goes green to stop oil plan for Siberia's 'Blue Eye'

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The Independent Online

The Russian President Vladimir Putin put the environment before financial profit yesterday, dramatically vetoing a plan to build an oil pipeline just 800m from the shore of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest freshwater lake.

His unexpected decision delighted Russian ecologists who had warned the plan was reckless and put the Unesco-listed lake, known as the "Blue Eye of Siberia", at unacceptable risk.

The country's oil executives were less pleased, saying an alternative greener route as ordered by Mr Putin could cost the Kremlin $1bn (£560m) more than the current cost of $11.5bn.

The original route caused a storm of protest from ecology-minded Russians. They said the lake would be devastated in the event of an oil spill, a possibility given the frequency of earthquakes, landslides and floods in the area.

The consequences of a spill would be grave; Baikal holds 20 per cent of the planet's fresh water and is home to 1,340 animal species and 570 plant species, many of them endemic. Greenpeace estimated a spill would pour 4,000 tons of oil into the lake within 20 minutes and one-third of its surface would be irreparably polluted.

Until yesterday Russia's powerful oil lobby appeared to have won the argument, steam-rolling the pipeline plan through state bodies, often by dubious means.

Mr Putin was thought to back the plan but has now ordered the pipeline to be rerouted. "If there is even the smallest, the tiniest chance of polluting Baikal, then we must think of future generations," he told Siberian governors. "We must do everything to make sure this danger is not just minimised, but eliminated."

He went on to say the pipeline should be moved 25 miles north of Baikal's shore to the other side of a mountain ridge.

Greenpeace Russia said: "The President's announcement shows the protests of hundreds of thousands of people in Russia and beyond its borders have not gone unnoticed." But it said it would keep a close eye on the state-controlled pipeline firm Transneft to make sure it did not revert to the original plan when the public fuss died down.

Semyon Vainshtok, the head of Transneft and an outspoken advocate of the plan, seemed shaken by Mr Putin who cut him down to size on the issue on state television. "Fifteen minutes ago, a decision was taken that fundamentally changes the economics of the project," Mr Vainshtok said afterwards. "I wasn't prepared for such a development. (But) I don't question orders." Mr Putin's intervention was not only unexpected but also last minute.

Construction of what will be the world's longest pipeline, at 2,550 miles, is due to start at a different location tomorrow. It will run from the Irkutsk region in Siberia to the Amur region on the Chinese border and on to Russia's Pacific coast.

For the Kremlin it is of vital strategic importance since it will pump 1.6 million barrels of Siberian oil a day to the lucrative and fast-growing economies of China and Japan.

Mr Putin's change of heart appeared to be a rare case of civil society and green groups defeating big business and the powerful Russian oil lobby. It is also a public relations coup for him in a year that his country chairs the G8 group of nations and is under attack from the West over his record on media freedom.

There will be those who will say Mr Putin planned to endorse a different route all along but held off until the last minute to look like "a kind Tsar". But like many other things in Russia, the full truth will probably never be known.