As the Kremlin pledged to build two huge natural gas pipelines to China by 2011, one of these routes has already triggered an environmental controversy.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China on March 21-22 for talks with President Hu Jintao, he reiterated pledges to raise oil and gas exports to China. “Exports of Russian gas to China will come from both Eastern and Western Siberia,” up to 30-40 billion cubic meters of gas a year from each region, Putin said. He also said major gas exports to China would require construction of a new pipeline, tentatively called Altai. The $10 billion pipeline should be commissioned in 2011, according to Russian officials. However, few details have been disclosed about the two gas pipelines, including the sources of the gas supplies and the investment funds.
A total of 15 documents were signed as part of Putin’s state visit to China on March 21. Major deals include an agreement between the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Russian oil company Rosneft, a memorandum of understanding between CNPC and Russia’s Gazprom for natural gas supply to China, and another memorandum between CNPC and Transneft, Russia’s pipeline monopoly.
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller and CNPC head Chen Geng signed a memorandum on deliveries of Russian natural gas to China, a follow-up to a partnership deal signed in October 2004. Miller also said Gazprom had agreed on a price formula for gas deliveries with its Chinese partners.
However, a direct pipeline link between Russia and China through Altai is only possible across the Ukok highland. For years Russian environmental organizations have been calling for international support in their campaign to protect the Ukok highland, which is the natural habitat of the snow leopard and other endangered species.
The highland is the source of major rivers that flow into Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China. It also has a number of important archaeological sites; a mummified Scythian “princess” was discovered there in 1996. The Ukok highland’s unique combination of biological diversity and cultural value gained world recognition in 1998 when UNESCO’s World Heritage Commission included the plateau in the Golden Mountains of Altai World Heritage site.
The protests were sparked by plans to develop the Ukok highland in the late 1990s. In December 1999, Russian scientists and environmental activists wrote a collective letter to Siberian Accord, an association of Siberian government leaders, arguing that a road or a pipeline could irreparably damage the Ukok highland. They also warned that the project would incur enormous costs in both construction and maintenance, since it would transit highland marshes, tundra, permafrost areas, and mountain passes at elevations reaching 2,600 meters. The scientists and environmentalists recommended an alternative route through Mongolia along existing roads.
Nonetheless, in March 2000 the Siberian Accord group voted to approve road construction through Altai and across the Ukok highland into China. However, there has been no talk of any major road or pipeline project through the Ukok highland since then.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a deputy of the State Duma from Altai region, strongly criticized the renewed plans to build the Altai pipeline. “Pipeline construction through a unique habitat is unacceptable,” he said. Ryzhkov also claimed that a sizable share of the pipeline costs could be pocketed by corrupt officials as kickbacks (Regnum, March 24).
“Natural heritage is endangered and a major scandal is inevitable,” warned Mikhail Shishin, head of the Altai XXIst Century foundation, a local NGO (Vedomosti, March 24).
“Ene Til” (Mother Earth), another Altai NGO, has called to convene a Kurultai, a traditional assembly of Altai people, to discuss plans to build the gas pipeline to China. “Gazprom plans remain unclear, but we oppose construction through the Ukok highland,” said Vladimir Kydyev, head of Ene Til. “Two hundred and fifty years ago our ancestors, oppressed by China, sought to become part of Russia, but now Moscow is opening towards China, and we become worried, of course,” he said (Regnum, March 24).
The Russian legislation, notably a bill on “Specially Protected Natural Territories,” specifically prohibits construction of major pipelines through natural reserves, said Amirkhan Amirkhanov, deputy head of environment protection department of the Russian Natural Resources Ministry. However, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupryanov promised to bypass all protected areas (Vedomosti, March 24).
Altai republic governor Alexander Karlin has so far offered a muted response to the idea of an Altai pipeline. “We have serious reasons to expect a decision by the federal government that could have serious repercussions for Altai,” he said. “We have to be ready for these changes,” Karlin added (Bankfax, March 23).
The speaker of the Altai republican parliament, Alexander Nazarchuk, conceded that the planned Altai gas pipeline came as a complete surprise. The Siberian Accord group had previously prioritized the Irkutsk-Chita route for gas exports to China, he said. On the other hand, the Altai gas pipeline could also come as a major boost for the Altai economy, Nazarchuk said (Bankfax, March 24).
The Altai gas pipeline plan is also seen as a political stratagem, designed to send a message to European consumers that if they do not like Russia’s sales terms, Russia can easily redirect the gas to China. Putin and Gazprom are pursuing an elaborate diplomatic game, seeking concessions from both Europe and China, commented Regnum news agency (Regnum, March 23).