SPE 61104
Oil- and Gas Development as a Potential Threat to Protected Areas and Pristine Wilderness in the South-East Barents Sea and Nenets Autonomous Okrug - Habitat Fragmentation and Contamination
N.J. Kotkin, The State Committee on Environmental Protection of Nenets Autonomous okrug, Russia, G.C. Boere, Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries, The Netherlands, and R. Hindrum, Directorate for Nature Management, Norway

Copyright 2000, Society of Petroleum Engineers Inc.

This paper was prepared for presentation at the SPE International Conference on Health, Safety, and the Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production held in Stavanger, Norway, 26–28 June 2000.

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This paper is based on experiences from the joint co-operation on nature protection between the Russian – Norwegian working group on biological diversity and the Goskomekologiya NAO, and the Russian – Dutch environmental co-operation.

Results from previous research work in the Pechora region and the South East Barents Sea shows that the actual region is of an outmost importance for protection of areas with ecological key functions and high wilderness quality and richness. Simultaneously this area contains biological resources of significant importance to the people living in the region and nature resources of high potential economical interest. Exploring for oil and gas in the Pechora delta and bay has already led to local oil contamination and disfigured localities from property left of constructions, and illegal fishing has caused decline in salmon and whitefish stocks in the Pechora River and Bay. Oil and gas development in other parts of the NAO shows similar experiences.

In 1998 the part of the regional nature reserve Nenetsky Zakaznik on the northern part of the Malosemelskaja tundra was upgraded to Zapovednik status. The searching for oil and gas in the Pechora River, Bay and Sea is bordering this extremely valuable and rich wilderness area. Also other protected areas, areas planned for protection, or other important habitats to protect the biodiversity of the region are threatened by the oil and gas industry.

Based on the expectations to find and utilise large oil and gas reservoirs in this region, it is of outmost importance to protect the wilderness from habitat fragmentation and to establish the best environmental practises and criteria to secure that the development will be sustainable as much as possible. This paper gives an overview of the existing and possible conflicts to nature protection and attempts to give a brief outline of future challenges and plans. It also questions the seminar theses "Progress to sharing values".



Short presentation of the area

The territory of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO) is located in the far north west of the European part of Russia. The territory of NAO is 176 800 km2 and its extension ranges about 300-400 km from north to south and almost 1 000 km from west to east from Kanin Nos Cape down to the Urals. The coast of the NAO is washed by the Barents, the Kara and the White seas, and the marine coastline is about 3 000 km long. The Area has two large insular territories - Kolguyev and Vaigach islands and a smaller archipelago adjoining to the capes: Russkii Zavorot (Gulyaevskie Koshki) and Medynskii (Matveev, Dolgii and Zelentsy).

According to the 1999 statistics the population of NAO is 46 300 people: 66 % are Russians, 12 % Nenets, 9,5 % Komi, 6,9 % Ukranians, and 2 % White Russians. The population density is 0,3 person per km2.

Bilateral co-operation Russia – Norway

The joint Russian – Norwegian Commission on Environmental Protection was established already in 1989 (Soviet – Norway). The co-operation covers the Russian and Norwegian part of the Barents Region which includes the Northern Norway, the Murmansk Oblast, the Republic of Karelia, the Archangelsk Oblast and NAO. The co-operation is based on an joint agreement to support building of democracy and sustainable development in Eastern-Europe, and to strengthen the environmental management in Russia on Federal level and on regional level in the Northwest Russia. The Commission has established several working groups, programs and expert groups. A reorganisation of the Commission in 1997 established most of the work in five working groups and two programs. The co-operation covers initiatives to protect biodiversity, marine environment, and cultural heritage, and initiatives to reduce industrial and radioactive contamination of the environment. Norway has in the last two years funded this co-operation with 1-1,5 mill. $ a year (of this the biodiversity program part is about 125-230 000 $). Both countries have in addition supported these bilateral initiatives by a significant number of man-labour years on expert level.

The Commissions work in NAO has so far mainly focused on the following activities:

Bilateral co-operation Russia – The Netherlands

The Netherlands is one of the main countries for migrating and wintering waders, geese, ducks and swans breeding in the Russian Arctic. This involves in total probably 10 million of birds and this strong ecological relation, existing for centuries, has been the basis for intensive co-operation going back to former USSR times. Since 1976 more intensive contacts have been established (exchange of experts mainly). This resulted in the first Russian-Dutch Expedition in 1990 to Taimyr marking the start of a long and very successful research programme on geese, Brent Goose (Branta bernicla) in particular, and waders. A research station has been build with two facilities: a year round station "Willem Barents Biological Station" at Medusa Bay (30 km south of Dickson) and a "summer" facility at Pyassina Bay, 200 km east of Dickson.

In the meantime contacts were formalised in 1991 in a Memorandum of Understanding on Ministerial level, describing the main fields of co-operation on environment, water management and nature conservation. Implementation is through biannual work programmes. Focussing on nature conservation the main themes (with some major programmes) in NAO is:

A new biannual programme is being developed for the period 2000 – 2002. With this programme, the Netherlands belongs to the group of 5-6 most active countries if it comes to bilateral co-operation in the field of nature management. It is most likely that for the next 2-3 years the level of programme and project funding will remain at the present level of about $500 000,- per year.


Present status of the area

Main environmental characteristics

Geographically and climatically the territory of NAO is considered as sub-arctic and arctic tundra. These flat tundra areas are unique in Europe with their untouched landscapes and ecosystems. There are also unique whitefish (Coregonus lavaretus) populations in the limnic and brackish ecosystems, populations that survived the former heavy industrial fishing. These populations consists of original forms of different whitefish species which has remained genetically untouched, and will be of great value to recovery projects of white fish populations in other European habitats.

The territory of NAO is to a great extent remote wilderness areas that consists of a nearly uncountable number of tundra lakes, large estuaries and a long and shallow coastline, habitats with minor industrial impact which makes optimal conditions for a diverse and numerous bird fauna in summer time. During the recent years the mineral research activity in the territory is considerably reduced which in turn has reduced the disturbance to several Red book species of the area. This has had a very positive effect on the Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) population on the Kolgujev Island and along the coastline. The population has increased considerably. There is also observed an increase of the populations of Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus L.), White-tailed Eagle (Haliaetus albicilla), Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus), Bewick Swan (Cygnus bewickii), Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus), Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis), and White-billed Diver (Gavia adamsii).

The Petsjora river is the largest river flowing to the Arctic with a catchment area of 322 000 km2. The river delta and estuary covers about 15 000 km2, and is free of industrial activity and has a very limited and insignificant agriculture. The floodplain of the river consists of vast marshes with sedges, willow bushes and riverine forests. There is a substantial coastal area, certainly if one includes the Russkii Zavorot Peninsula. Finally there are various types of tundra of mainly a low arctic character, including glacial sand dunes of an extensive nature. There are vast areas of a diverse lichen flora (vulnerable to air pollution from gas and oil exploitation). The aquatic fauna is of high species diversity and is extremely important for the fisheries. There are many species of plants and in particular there is a diverse bird fauna were most of the species occur in large numbers. Many of the Russian red Data Book species occur in the area i.e. the White-tailed Eagle and the Bewick Swan. The area is extremely important as a stopover site in spring and autumn for large numbers of birds breeding east of the Pechora area. The shallow water between the Pechora delta and the Russkii Zavorot Peninsula is the main moulting site for thousands of Bewick swans (the swans are not able to fly in this period and therefore very vulnerable, and therefore also need remote, undisturbed areas with sufficient available food). This ecosystem system is still intact and is of a unique value both in the Russian and worldwide.

Protected areas

The most urgent measures to safeguard undisturbed wilderness areas are to establish nature-protected areas (NPA). Goskomecologia NAO has paid special attention to nature protection from the very beginning of its existence (1989). Before1990, the protected areas covered 3,7% of the territory, but is now increased to 6,25%. The NPAs planned for the period 2000-2005 will increase the protected areas to 10,6% of the total territory, which is close to the protection level of the Western Europe countries (about 11-12%). The existing NPAs are:

The authorities and nature protecting agencies of NAO took some measure already in 1989 to regulate the geological prospecting activity to safeguard natural habitats and landscapes. The regulation of "The Zone of restricted industrial activities" (#55) was established 31st of March 1989. This regulation excluded a large part of the NAO territory from industrial activities, especially prospecting and mining of mineral resources. This regulation was a provision for preservation, restoration and reproduction of natural landscape and geological objects, and strictly restricts all types of industrial activities in this part of the territory (like drilling, construction, transport, etc.), except traditional use of biological resources (reindeer herding, fishing, berry-picking, etc.). Exemption to restricted activities can be given by a special and joint decision by the Administration and Deputy Assembly of NAO, based on the principles of "(...) particular importance and economic expediency (…)".

At present the following areas are regulated as "Zone of restricted industrial activities":

Human activities and impacts

The economic and ecological situation in NAO mirrors very much the situation of Russia in general. In the period after 1990 there has been a significant decline in every industrial production, and the technology has been hopelessly out-of-date. The number of large enterprises in NAO decreased from 124 to 98 at the end of 1998. The 3 major oil and gas prospecting expedition units no longer exist, and some industrial plants and military bases were closed down. This was mainly due to lack of financial resources for investment into reconstruction and upgrading of machinery and technology, which in turn has led to significant ageing and wear and tear of industry and manufacturing. This also includes waste management and water treatment facilities. Experts in ecology therefore look at the future industrial development with great scepticism.

The total atmospheric emission in 1998 from all stationary and mobile sources in NAO was 25 200 tons of pollutants (incl. 599,5t of soot, 711,2t of ashes, 1,09t of lead, 23 900t of gaseous and liquid pollutants). The atmospheric air condition is characterised as safe. In comparison to 1997 total emissions increased by 20 %, mainly caused by increased production at the Haryaginskii deposit.

Because of lack of technical opportunities and financial resources it has not been possible to research and monitor the water contamination of the territory. Wastewater disposal is monitored only in the Pechora River basin in close vicinity to wastewater treatment facilities. Considering the absence of large cities and industrial centres in NAO the water contamination is assumed to be minimal.

Monitoring of industrial and municipal wastewater started in 1995. In 1998 NAO accumulated 1 255,53t of metal waste, 664,5t of drilling silt, 10 999,7t of dung, 10 804,4t of solid waste, and 251 838 m3 of effluent waste.

The indigenous people in NAO are Nenets. Of the approximately 6 000 Nenets people living here, about 5 500 lives in the countryside and about 500 in cities/villages. The traditional indigenous industries are reindeer herding, fishery and hunting. About 1 thousand Nenets lives from reindeer herding and forms in total 14 farms or companies. The average reindeer herd size varies from 150 to 180 thousand animals. The reindeer pastures cover about 72% of the territory. The traditional land use can not harmoniously coexist with the future industrial development on the tundra; especially the oil, gas and mining industry are inconsistent with traditional use of the tundra. Such industry has already occupied more than 40 000 hectares of the most valuable reindeer pastures. It’s therefore very important that the oil and gas development in this territory especially consider the safeguarding of the natural biological resources and the social and economic security of the indigenous people.


Future challenges and plans

Short overview of prospects and potentials for oil and gas development

Environmental experts recognise the oil and gas development in NAO with special concern. After years of intensive geological research 75 fields of hydrocarbons deposits have been discovered in this territory. The total resources are estimated to about 2,4 billion tons of oil, about 1,2 trillion tons of gas, 44 million tons of condensate, and 133 billion m3 of dissolved gas. At present 13 companies are working in NAO under 38 licenses, and they have developed only about 2 % of the known resources of hydrocarbons. Geologically only 50% of the territory have been prospected, and according to expert estimates further geological prospecting may discover reserves of hydrocarbons that will be 2-3 times as much as the present ones.

During the last two years the economical situation is stabilised and there are tendencies to an economic growth. The production volume in 1998 increased 102,1 % compared to 1997. This was mainly due to the development of the oil industry and increased oil production. The gas production has reached 273,5 million m3 (1,9 % increase), electric power production was 61 million kWh (3,4 % increase). There is a general tendency to industrial economical growth.

Needs for safeguarding the protected areas against contamination and fragmentation

There are especially two aspects to be considered: 1) the general aspects of protected areas in a Pan European frame work, and 2) more specific actions based on the situation in the region. Generally it is well excepted that a continuous fragmentation of habitats and protected areas is an important reason to loss of biodiversity. All international organisations and conventions have a clear policy to develop ecological networks to habitat protection, restoration of fragmented habitats, and connection of protected areas into networks to safeguard ecological processes and functional species habitats. With respect to the Arctic this is the basis for an important activity of the Working Group on the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF). Circumpolar Protected Area Network (CPAN) aiming at the establishment of a number of additional protected areas in the Arctic and the developing of a physical planning and legal system which safeguards the basic ecological aspects of areas in between, without blocking the necessary socio-economic developments for the people to sustain their lives in the Arctic.

In this, CPAN follows the policy on the Pan European Ecological Network (PEEN) as agreed by the Pan European Ministerial Conferences on Environment and Nature (lastly in Aarhuus 1999). Protected areas networks as Natura 2000 (European Member States and accession countries) and the Emerald Network (Bern Convention Parties) are important elements of such a Pan European network. The Russian Federation, as a Member of the Council of Europe, has still to ratify the Bern Convention, but has already started preparations for their involvement in Emerald Network and PEEN in general.

There is many ways oil and gas exploitation activities can have negative impacts to the environment. Pipeline constructions, roads, contaminated areas (micro-ecological or long-term impacts on the ecosystem) change of permafrost, etc. fragments habitats by blocking necessary corridors between protected areas and other natural ecosystems. The development of oil and gas facilities should therefore take the joint international policies more into account. If so we are convinced that it is possible to establish a more sustainable oil and gas development.

Plans and needs for improved protection of the region

The Administration and nature protection agencies of NAO recognise the importance of establishing protected habitats for preservation of these unique and representative wilderness areas left in Northern Europe. These areas have unique formations, important biological and genetic diversity, importance to biosphere and climatic processes, as well as importance to ecological education of the population. The NAO authorities have therefore chosen the following areas as prospective protected habitats:

Preservation of biological diversity in the Arctic region is a global task. The nature protection agencies of NAO aspire to continue this work, and have set aside the necessary equipment and have specialists and highly qualified scientific support available to these projects. They see this work, which started in 1999-2000, as a prioritised task to finish before a large-scale hydrocarbon development takes place in NAO. This process will need significant financial support from international co-operation and private industry.

The experience of Yamal and Western Siberia shows that it’s easier to prevent negative impacts to the Arctic environment than to restore ecosystems ruined by industrial accidents. The nature protection agencies of NAO therefore invite all volunteers for this co-operation.

Needs for improved knowledge of the environmental resources of the region

The ecological conditions of NAO have been relatively stable during the recent years. Except from the research program executed by the Netherlands and the KOMI institute, there have unfortunately been rather few nature research projects in the area the last few years. Research expeditions on recently discovered minerals are often carried out or financed by involved foreign companies. NAO authorities receive information from environmental impact assessment, and scientific data form brief reports obtained by the Russian expeditions. Scientific research on the most urgent environmental problems is demand by the authorities and financed by the ecological fund. The last few years there are carried out research projects on the following subjects:

The Pechora delta is still one of the largest undisturbed and complete delta ecosystems of the world. Given its arctic environment this ecosystem has a high biodiversity. Many species are present and sometimes in large numbers. This delta therefore represents a unique area for species and ecosystems research. It provides science with the best reference area there is to study the original processes in a large undisturbed river delta. This knowledge is vital for the implementation of many policy plans to slowly restore some of the functions of highly altered delta’s in particular in Europe. It is the major reason why the Netherlands has set up its long and intensive research programme in the delta in close co-operation with the KOMI Institute of the Academy of Sciences and the Ecological Committee of NAO.

Increased knowledge is also important to guide and set limits to the socio-economic development of the region in relation to oil and gas exploitation, but also in order to sustain other activities such as reindeer herding.

Establishing the best environmental practises and criteria for oil and gas development of the region

A sustainable utilisation of the oil and gas resources in the territory can only be obtained in terms of sufficient environmental knowledge, safe and sound practises and use of the best available technology. This implies use of the best standards and practises applied to the Arctic environment. This includes the environmental aspects of oil and gas exploration and exploitation in arctic environment as referred to by IUCN.

Companies with experience from exploration and production of oil and gas in the arctic in the framework of the best environmental practises should be given a lead role for an improved development in this field by sharing their experience with other companies and the authorities. The authorities must be educated and trained in how to manage the petroleum development in NAO to make the proper demands to the companies and band all activities which are not in accordance with an environmental sound development. This must be an important issue for bilateral co-operation between Russia and other countries. The environmental co-operation between Norway and Russia is aware of this, and has therefore started a work on establishing the OSPAR standards on oil and gas development in Northwest Russia. Norway has also agreed with the Goskomekologya NAO to start an education and training program for their experts whereof environmental management of oil and gas development is included.

To establish the best environmental practises and criteria there has to be established a co-operation between the environmental authorities and the oil and gas industry which is based on a mutual understanding of nature protection and sustainable use of natural resources. Both the federal and regional SCEP should be considered as the most important authorities in this process.


Progress to sharing values?

Attitude to minimum loss of wilderness

Minimum loss of wilderness is very important and also relates to the general outline of ecological networks mentioned above. The map on human influences in Eurasia shows the lowest activities or even no activities in the Arctic. It is here that people can experience the real wilderness of an almost untouched part of the world. A similar map of the Barents Region based on the Wilderness Quality Mapping method shows that Northwest Russia is perhaps the most undisturbed area in the whole Europe. Some Arctic countries, like Finland, even have developed special legislation related to maintain wilderness areas and strictly regulated the use of such areas. History has shown that even in large remote areas the first, meaningless developments can grow to a size where nature has lost forever. The Arctic is one of the last wilderness areas of the world and any development should take that into account before activities are being developed. A sustainable use of natural resources in the Arctic has to include minimum loss of wilderness as a principle.

Strengthening the regional environmental authorities (economically, capacity building)

The most urgent needs for the Goskomekologya NAO to meet the environmental challenges are capacity building and an improved economy. Capacity building should be the number one priority in bilateral environmental co-operation with other countries. Oil and gas development in NAO is divided into offshore and onshore (tundra) activities. Experiences have therefore to be imported from different countries.

The economy of the environmental administration has to be improved by different efforts. The polluter pay principle is already established and is an important economical mechanism to meet the needs made by different impact sources like the oil and gas industry. Similarly there should be established a more comprehensive payment system to regulate different parts of the industrial activities, and to make the Goskomekologya NAO capable of establishing the necessary capacity i.e. to handle the oil and gas development.

Environmental training of the oil and gas industry

The petroleum industry has to be developed in the framework of an environmentally safe and sound technology and economy. As already mentioned, this means company shearing of experience from the best available practises.

Shared responsibility for sustainable development of the region

All stakeholders have shared responsibility for sustainable development in NAO. This means the oil and gas industry, federal and regional authorities, as well as other countries sharing the importance of this ecosystem in one way or other. Migratory birds, common population of marine fish and mammals are examples of such shared "international" ecosystem resources. Stakeholders utilising natural resources share responsibility to sustain the development for future generations. Foreign companies or companies from outside the region are especially responsible to take care of the interests of the regional people and see to that short term economic interests do not come in the first place.

The Pechora Delta is a good example of shared responsibilities between the regional people, the industry and that of other countries. The survival of the famous breeding population of the Bewick Swan makes other countries within the whole flyway responsible. This species is which is listed as endangered in the Russian Federation as well as on the national lists of other countries and on international conventions like the African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement under the Bonn Convention. In particular the Netherlands invests substantial resources to maintain the large wintering populations and to contribute to the survival of viable population. At the same time wintering Bewick swans are a part of the Dutch Natural Heritage and a shared biodiversity resource with the Russian Federation; it is a joint responsibility to protect the species against major developments in the delta.


  1. GEF Workshop in Moscow: «Integrated Ecosystem Approach to Conserve Biodiversity and Minimize Habitat Fragmentation in The Russian Arctic», Moscow, 2-4 February 2000.
  2. Martin, Vance G. and Nicholas Tyler (ed.), 1995. Proceedings of the 5th World Wilderness Congress: Arctic Wilderness. North American Press, Golden Colorado.
  3. Nijland H.J. (ed), 1998. Dealing with Nature in Delta’s. Chapters on the Pechora Delta. RIZA, Lelystad, The Netherlands)
  4. Wilderness Quality Mapping, GRID Arendal. DN-rapport 1995-4
  5. The Pan-Arctic View. Wilderness Map: "Keeping Nature Unspoiled". WWF, GRID Arendal, and DN 1995