Major Oil Spill in the Arctic

By Lakshmy Raman

The collapse of a power plant fuel tank has resulted in 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil leaking into the Ambarnaya river near the Siberian city of Norilsk, within the Arctic Circle. President Vladmir Putin has declared a state of emergency and the Russian Investigative Committee has launched a criminal case against the plant owned by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer. The plant informed authorities two days after the spill, which is believed to have occurred on May 29, 2020. The leaked oil has now drifted over 12 km. from the site and contaminated an area of around 350 sq. km. Long stretches of the river are now crimson red. Arctic permafrost has been melting in the warmer-than-usual weather, leading to ground subsidence beneath the fuel storage tanks. This is believed to have caused the spill. A BBC report suggests that the scale of the spill and geography of the area will make it a difficult clean up and a cost of $1.5 billion that would take five to 10 years. Norilsk Nickel was also involved in another oil spill accident in 2016.

Oil spills have long-term impacts on the ecosystem. Apart from impacting riverine or marine wildlife, when an oil slick reaches a beach, it coats every grain of sand. It could wash into mangrove forests, coastal marshes, wetlands, degrading these habitats and making them unsuitable for wildlife. Even after huge clean-up efforts after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, it was found that 26,000 gallons of oil were trapped in the sand along the shoreline.

For years, Sanctuary has been urging the move to greener energy options that do not have an adverse impact on the climate. Oil and gas demand crashed during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy had estimated that global petroleum use would reach 104 million barrels per day by 2025. However, in April 2020, major oil-producing nations agreed to cut global production by nearly 10 million barrels per day. Though some analysts predict that petroleum use will return to its earlier patterns, it is vital for our leaders to come together to rethink and reshape the world energy equation.

Note: Image is for representative purpose only.