Speaking at a regional meeting in the Siberian city of Tomsk, Putin said on April 26 the pipeline, which joins Siberia with Russia's Pacific Coast, must be routed away from Lake Baikal.
"If there is even the smallest, the tiniest chance of polluting Baikal, then we must think of future generations and we must do everything to make sure this danger is not just minimized, but eliminated," Putin said. "This means that the pipeline we're talking about must go above the northern border of Lake Baikal's watershed."
State television showed Putin pointing with a red pen at the projected route of the pipeline on a giant map, and saying it must be moved more than 40 kilometers further to the north. Lake Baikal is estimated to hold 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water.
Environmentalists and experts have said the lake could be permanently damaged in the event of an oil spill. In the event of an accident, they say, up to 3,000 metric tons of oil could find its way into Lake Baikal within 20 minutes. The multi-billion dollar pipeline was originally routed to pass less than 1 kilometer from the lake. Experts have also raised concerns about the danger of seismic activity in the area.
Roman Vazhenkov, the head of Greenpeace's Baikal program, told RFE/RL that the decision has been a long time in coming: "It is a pity that only after mass protests in the whole county, the authorities have finally listened to the voice of scientists, the voice of specialists, the voice of the society, [and] seriously got into the problem and have taken the correct decision, which we welcome."
Putin's statement came as a surprise to many, as previously the state environmental watchdog supported the original route.
Oil To Far East
Vazhenkov thinks Putin's announcement sends a strong message to the state-owned Transneft oil pipeline company: "I think that President [Putin's] announcement is an important signal for Transneft company, a signal telling them that they should approach this problem in a different way."
Transneft has previously insisted that the pipeline poses no danger to Lake Baikal. But, in an interview with RFE/RL, Sergei Grigoriyev, the vice president of Transneft, appeared to welcome the decision.
"On the whole we are happy with President [Putin's] decision because now we can smoothly start the construction. Now we will be able to work calmly without this political component, as I would call it," Grigoriyev said.
When complete, the pipeline should pump up to 80 million metric tons a year to Russia's Far East. The oil will then be sent to Japan and China.