09/26/2013, 00.00
RUSSIA
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Arctic Forum: Moscow begins industrial conquest of Polar Circle

At a two-day forum dedicated to Arctic development and environmental safety, President Putin announces that it is time for an industrial breakthrough in the region, a treasure trove of hydrocarbons and a central route place for new shipping lanes. The authorities reassure environmentalists that only the most innovative technologies will only be used with the highest ecological standards.

Salekhard (AsiaNews) - It is time for an industrial breakthrough in the Arctic, which must take place in full respect of the environment. Russian President Vladimir Putin said. As the controversy that followed the arrest of 30 Greenpeace activists protesting against the drilling of Gazprom in the Pechora Sea continues, the Russian leader delivered his message at an International Arctic Forum titled  The Arctic-Territory of Dialogue that ended yesterday in Salekhard.

Only city located exactly on the Arctic Circle, the capital of Yamalo-Nenets (Western Siberia) is considered a treasure trove for Russian hydrocarbons. On Tuesday and Wednesday, it hosted a forum with more than 370 experts, scientists, politicians and businessmen to discuss the issue of environmental security in the Arctic.

Due ice melting, the region has become important from a geostrategic and economic point of view, vetting the appetites of various countries like China, USA, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Russia. Indeed, the latter wants to play the leading role in oil and of gas development.

According to estimates by the US Geological Survey, under 22 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas lies under Arctic Circle. Climate change has made ​​these deposits more accessible, and opened the so-called "northern routes", which will cut both time and sea transport costs.

Moscow is planning an ambitious development of the Arctic coastal shelf - which, the Natural Resources Ministry says, contains more than 80 billion tons of oil and gas - and has high hopes of drawing in foreign companies to participate in the boom, those with the right skills, technologies and adequate financial support, as Putin put it.

Despite the fears of environmentalists for the possible destruction of the fragile Arctic ecosystem and the safety of indigenous peoples who inhabit these lands, the Kremlin ruler said it was impossible to stop Arctic development. At the same time, he insisted that it would take place in full respect of the environment, thanks to the use of the latest technologies.

Russia owns one-third of all Arctic territories and was the first country to begin oil and gas production in the Arctic in 1970s.In the past decade, more than 1,000 oil and gas fields have been discovered, as well as deposits of diamonds and other rare metals.

Only two state companies - Rosneft and Gazprom - are authorised to work on the Arctic coastal shelf. Whilst Gazprom mostly operates using its own resources, Rosneft is actively attracting foreign companies and already has contracts with companies like ExxonMobil and Statoil.

"The Barents Sea has huge potential," said Jan Hegel Skogen, president of Statoil Russia, who was among the participants at the Forum in Salekhard.

In cooperation with Rosneft, "We have elaborated a programme for the large-scale exploration of this area and increased the budget for reconnaissance works by three times last year".

"Russia hopes the Arctic shelf will open new perspectives for the country's energy development," Natural Resources and Ecology Minister Sergei Donskoi said.

Echoing President Putin, the minister tried to calm environmentalists, stressing that next year, some 700 million rubles (US$ 20 million) will be spent on protection next year. About 1.4 billion rubles (US$ 40 million) has already been spent on industrial waste disposal.

As evidence of Russia's commitment to the environment, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who also heads the Russian Geographic Society that organised the forum, promised that by 2020, two national parks would be created in the Far East. In addition, a law that came into effect on 1 July requires that all oil companies working in the region to take responsibility for possible oil spills.

In view of its ambitious goals, Russia would likely ask the commission on the UN Law of the Sea to expand Russia's territory over the areas of Lomonosov Ridge and Mendeleyev Ridge, Donskoi said. Russia had applied to the UN in 2001 but its request was declined due to a lack of proof that the two areas were a part of the Russia's coastal shelf.

Russia will take "unprecedented measures" to encourage companies to take part in the Northern Sea Route project by slashing taxes for companies willing to get involved. "By introducing such benefits we are making it profitable to work in the Arctic region despite its severe conditions," Donskoi said. (N.A.)

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