Russia’s Quest for Arctic Oil Has Created a State of Emergency

Russian Fossil Fuel Growth

For decades, economic growth in Russia has been primarily fueled by the domestic production of oil, natural gas, and coal. With just over 11.3 million barrels of oil produced daily in 2018, Russia has become the world’s second biggest producer of oil, falling just short of the record fossil fuel production in the United States (Clemente, 2019). Revenue from the production of oil, natural gas, and coal make up a significant portion of the Russian government’s annual budget. As global oil prices skyrocketed to near record highs towards the beginning of the 2000s, the Russian gross domestic product (GDP) climbed by roughly 15 percent, bringing in billions of dollars for the government (Aron, 2006). Moreover, the surge in oil prices significantly enhanced Russia’s position in the world and increased annual personal incomes by nearly one-third. With an economy that has become increasingly dependent on the success of the fossil fuel industry, the Russian government has been rapidly moving forward with plans to secure more fossil fuels reserves in the Arctic. However, these efforts have created a significant rise in environmentally damaging incidents within the Arctic.

Source: Pixabay

An Arctic Disaster

The year 2020 has been one of the most challenging years for the fossil fuel industry. Collapsing oil prices have created an enormous amount of uncertainty for many of the world’s fossil fuel producers. To make matters worse, an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia created even more tension for oil producers that were already reeling from the impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic. Following this catastrophic start of the year, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency at the end of May as a result of a massive oil spill in the Arctic. According to Russian media outlets, over 20,000 tons of diesel fuel were spilled into the Ambarnaya River in northern Siberia. Photos of the aftermath showed that this once pristine Arctic river had turned crimson red from the toxic diesel spill. Reports conveyed that the spill, which originated from a collapsed fuel tank owned by the Norilsk Nickel company, impacted areas of the Arctic environment over seven miles away from the damaged fuel tank (Nechepurenko, 2020).  

Following the initial report of the spill, President Vladimir Putin publicly reprimanded local authorities and the initial emergency response team for their lackluster efforts to take immediate and effective control over the disastrous situation. Since the spill was not adequately addressed in the initial 24 hours following the collapse of the fuel tank, the contamination zone has spread throughout a vast area of the Arctic Circle around the north-central region of Russia. The spread of the diesel flow became so widespread that the full extent of the damage is only visible through the use of satellite imagery.

Source: Pixabay

The Magnitude of the Damage

The Russian division of the Greenpeace environmental organization has conveyed that the spill may be the largest ever experienced within the Russian controlled region of the Arctic (Khurshudyan, 2020). Moreover, officials have described the spill as being significantly larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in 1989 just off the coast of Alaska. With regards to the overall potential cost of the cleanup, environmental experts say it may end up costing more than $86?million (Khurshudyan, 2020). On the other hand, the deputy director of Rosprirodnadzor, which is the Russian Federal Service for the Supervision of Natural Resources, says that the cleanup efforts could take upwards of a decade to complete with a total cost of about $1.5 billion (Mansoor, 2020).

Taking Aim at Norilsk Nickel

How did this disaster happen? This is the question that Russian officials have been asking the owner of the Arctic fuel tank. The Norilsk Nickel company is taking the brunt of the blame. As the largest producer of nickel and platinum in the world, environmental advocates and political officials say that Norilsk Nickel should have implemented a series of fail-safe technological advancements to prevent a spill of this magnitude. Immediately following the aftermath of this spill, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, which essentially operates as Russia’s anti-corruption agency, opened up a criminal case against Norilsk Nickel. Additionally, plant manager Vyacheslav Starostin of the Norilsk Nickel corporation was physically detained following the spill. President Putin has said that Starostin’s detainment came as a result of a lack of initial cooperation and failure to take immediate and necessary action to remedy the spill and alert the proper authorities. In a live videoconference call, President Putin blasted Norilsk Nickel for these egregious violations.

One of the matters that has come into question is Norilsk Nickel’s past experiences with environmental issues. The company has a long and questionable environmental record. In 2016, Norilsk Nickel was found to be responsible for what has become known as the “blood river.” Metallurgical waste from Norilsk Nickel’s iron ore operations were found to be leaking into the Daldykan River, causing it to turn bright red from the toxic chemicals. Following this incident, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources developed a report that highlighted how a ruptured pipe from one of Norilsk Nickel’s operational plants had been allowing discarded iron ore waste to flow into the river from a series of slurry ponds. Following this incident, President Putin “promised that industrial development in the Arctic would progress with the utmost care” (Kramer, 2016). While these promises were made, Russian citizens and environmental advocates have been quick to call out a lack of governmental oversight to prevent these sorts of ecological disasters from happening.

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Contributions to Acid Rain

In addition to previously leaking toxic substances into the environment, Norilsk Nickel has also been a notorious contributor to acid rain in the region. At one of its industrial plants in northern Russia, immense emissions of sulfur dioxide have created an ecological dead zone filled with dead trees and acidic mud that has impacted a region that is twice the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island (Nechepurenko, 2020). While sulfur dioxide is not known as a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, sulfur dioxide is known as a fossil fuel byproduct that can circulate into the atmosphere to create acid rain and air pollution (Nunez, 2019).

Acid rain from sulfur dioxide emissions is particularly harmful for forests because it eliminates essential nutrients like calcium and magnesium from the soil, which are vital elements that trees need to survive. Moreover, when soil contains inadequate levels of magnesium and calcium, trees and other vegetation can become increasingly susceptible to damage from insects, fungal diseases, and inclement weather. Furthermore, acid rain is also known to add high levels of aluminum and other heavy metals to soil. When these metals soak deep into the ground and become absorbed by a tree’s roots, it blocks roots from being able to soak up enough water and nutrients for the tree to be able to survive. In addition to attacking the tree’s roots, acid rain also attacks vegetation from the sky by destroying the protective outer coating on leaves, which is critical for the process of photosynthesis. Without photosynthesis, trees are not able to produce sufficient levels of energy, food, or oxygen.

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Cleaning up the Region

In an effort to address the fossil fuel contaminants, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry and personnel from Norilsk Nickel worked collaboratively with a team of hundreds of workers to clean up the environment. However, after a full week of working to remedy the situation, only about 340 tons of diesel were able to be removed from the environment, which is a stunningly low amount given that the total spill was estimated to be upwards of 20,000 tons of diesel (Nechepurenko, 2020). Environmentalists fear that the remaining fossil fuels will be unable to be extracted from the surrounding environment, which could create potentially hazardous conditions for decades into the future.

There have been a number of speculations about how the leak occurred from the fuel tank. Norilsk Nickel has been adamant about their operating practices being in line with Russian environmental regulations. Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Sergey Dyachenko of Norilsk Nickel released a statement that highlighted how there was no negligence in his company’s operations. He said, “The tank is inspected every other year. There is a whole list of criteria for the inspection, which normally results in the tank tagged as serviceable” (Mansoor, 2020). George Washington University professor Dmitry Streletskiy says that the spill likely occurred as a result of aging infrastructure and climate change. However, some politicians question the notion that climate change could have been a contributing factor to the disaster. However, even Norilsk Nickel has suggested that the thawing Arctic could have caused their infrastructure to fail.

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Thawing Permafrost

Thawing permafrost can create precarious situations for human infrastructure. From a scientific standpoint, permafrost is known as ground that has continuously remained frozen for a period of two or more years. Permafrost covers large swaths of the Earth, particularly in colder regions within high elevations or within the the Earth’s upper latitudes close to the North and South Poles. Much of the communities and human infrastructure that have been constructed in the Arctic lie on top of a thick layer of permafrost that has remained frozen for many millennia. However, as the Earth has started to warm, these regions have started to thaw, which is causing homes, business, and roadways to rapidly deteriorate and sometimes collapse without warning.

A recent study in the Journal of Nature Communications found that about 70 percent of the infrastructure that has been built within the Arctic lies on top of permafrost (Hjort et al, 2018). Researchers say that roughly 3.6 million people could be impacted by the thawing permafrost over the next three decades (Romanovsky, 2018). Researcher David Titley from Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk says that Russia will face enormous impacts from these changes. Since nearly 50 percent Russia’s oil and gas operations are located within unstable regions of the Arctic, there could be severe consequences in the future for both the environment and the Russian economy (Romanovsky, 2018).

An Uncertain Future

It is likely that melting permafrost contributed to one of the largest fossil fuel spills ever experienced in the Arctic. While the environmental implications from this one spill will impact the region for many years, scientists and environmental experts are fearful that this may be just the beginning when it comes to major oil and gas spill in the Arctic. As the world continues to warm, measures need to be taken to secure fossil fuel infrastructure that has been located on unstable areas of permafrost. As a result of this single Norilsk Nickel diesel spill, lakes and bodies of water more 12 miles away from the initial contamination zone have revealed very high concentrations of petroleum products (Khurshudyan, 2020).


Aron, L. (2006). “Russia’s Oil: Natural Abundance and Political Shortages.” American Enterprise Institute.

Clemente, J. (2019). “Does the U.S. Import Oil from Russia?” Forbes.

Ellyatt, H. (2020). “Russia declares state of emergency after massive oil spill in the Arctic Circle.” CNBC.

Hjort, J., et al. (2018). “Degrading permafrost puts Arctic infrastructure at risk by mid-century.” Journal of Nature Communications.

Khurshudyan, I. (2020). “Arctic fuel spill prompts Russia’s Putin to declare emergency and slam slow response.” The Washington Post.

Kramer, A. (2016). “In Siberia, a ‘Blood River’ in a Dead Zone Twice the Size of Rhode Island.” The New York Times.

Mansoor, S. (2020). “Russia Declares Emergency Following Spill of 20,000 Tons of Oil in the Arctic Circle.” Time.

Nechepurenko, I. (2020). “Russia Declares Emergency After Arctic Oil Spill.” The New York Times.

Nunez, C. (2019). “Acid rain, explained.” National Geographic.

Romanovsky, V. (2018). “Melting Permafrost Could Damage Infrastructure for 3.6 Million People.” Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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