Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 150

A leak in one segment of Russia’s Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline has not only affected international prices, but the incident has also reignited debates regarding the safety record of the country’s aging pipeline system.

The leak occurred July 29 on the Russian border with Ukraine and Belarus and spilled some 50 tons of oil from Druzhba-1, the country’s key oil-export pipeline system in Surazh district, Bryansk region. Officially reports said that only 340 square meters of land had been contaminated by the leak. Emergency teams pumped out most of the leaked oil and removed soil to prevent the crude from spreading.

The leak caused a temporary shutdown of Druzhba’s Unecha-Polotsk branch, where the spill took place. Transneft, Russia’s oil pipeline monopoly, said the pipeline had stopped pumping oil over the weekend, but that the flow resumed on July 31.

Although the official investigation is yet to be finalized, the pipeline’s poor condition and advanced age are being blamed as the main causes of the accident. The 4,000-kilometer Druzhba-1 pipeline was built nearly four decades ago. It funnels some 1.2 million barrels per day.

Although the volume of oil spilled would fill only one railway tanker, the spill still affected international oil prices. However, Transneft said in a statement that the oil spill would not affect Russian oil export volume. “The recent accident will not influence oil exports, as the company has taken all necessary measures to maintain the volume of crude oil transportation,” it said (Interfax, August 2).

Other Russian officials also appeared keen to downplay the incident. An oil leak from a pipeline near the Belarusian border poses no threat to the environment, Viktor Beltsov, spokesman for the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, declared on July 31. “The oil spill was insignificant and posed no threat to the environment.” He added, “The polluted layer of soil has been removed.” He denied media reports about serious soil contamination.

The Russian Natural Resources Ministry initially said the leak affected a 10-square-kilometer area and had contaminated water sources. However, later that same day, July 31, the ministry downplayed its earlier statement and said its experts were “not inclined to call the accident an environmental disaster” (RIA-Novosti, July 31).

However, the incident prompted some Russian officials to offer strong criticism of Russia’s oil pipeline monopoly. Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the country’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, argued that Transneft is unable to guarantee the safety of its pipelines. He lashed out at Transneft for its perceived failure to maintain its pipelines properly. According to Mitvol, who visited Bryansk region, 487 defects have been found in branches of the Unecha-Polotsk pipeline in recent months.

“According to the technical documentation we have received, in the current state, these pipelines can not be used,” Mitvol said (Interfax, July 31).

Mitvol argued that about 100 tons of oil had leaked from the pipeline, twice the amount estimated by Transneft itself. “Approximately 1,000 square meters were polluted,” he said. Mitvol said Transneft “did everything it should have done,” adding that the company would be expected to pay compensation to the local authorities in the area of the spill. “Only by a miracle did oil not leak into the Dnieper River,” he added (Vedomosti, August 1).

Subsequently, Mitvol sent an official letter to the office of the Russian Prosecutor General, requesting a criminal probe into the spill. Mitvol argued that the leak should be investigated according to Article 254 of the Russian Criminal Code, which deals with “destruction of land” (Interfax, August 2). However, it is still far from certain whether the leak could become the subject of a criminal investigation.

The spill caused oil shipping delays and interruptions. Lithuania’s Mazeikiu Nafta reportedly indicated that the refinery did not receive some 50,000 tons of crude as a result of the accident. Furthermore, oil supplies to Mazeikiu could be halted or reduced through August in the wake of the spill.

The accident also served to renew the debate over the safety of Russia’s pipeline system. Some Russian media outlets questioned Transneft’s safety record. When Transneft lobbied in favor of its East Siberia-Pacific pipeline project, it hailed its safety record and claimed it had only 0.04 leaks per 1,000 kilometers of pipelines per year. However, Regnum news commented, that is not exactly the case, because there were 11 leaks in 2004 and 12 last year.

As Transneft operates some 50,000 kilometers of pipeline, that would mean it actually suffered 0.22-0.24 leaks per 1,000 kilometers of pipelines per year, Regnum wrote. In other words, the pipeline monopoly actually records five-to-six times more leaks than it publicly admits, it calculated. Therefore, Russian President Vladimir Putin had good reason to order Transneft to move its planned East Siberia-Pacific pipeline away from Lake Baikal, it commented (Regnum, August 1).