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Baltics: Kaliningrad Activists Concerned About Oil Drilling Near UNESCO Site

Ecologists in Kaliningrad have filed suit against a branch of the oil company LUKoil that is planning to extract oil from the Baltic Sea. They say the company has failed to provide sufficient information about the project, which could endanger a national park, the Curionian Spit, a territory on UNESCO's World Heritage list. Lithuania, which shares the Curionian Spit with Kaliningrad, is also concerned about the plans, despite LUKoil assurances that its drilling will be safe.

Prague, 29 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Activists from the Kaliningrad environmental group Ekozashchita (Ecoprotection) have filed suit against LUKoil-Kaliningradmorneft, a local branch of Russian oil giant LUKoil, over a project to drill in the Baltic Sea near an environmentally sensitive area.

Ecologists say the drilling would endanger plant and animal life on the Curionian Spit, which is a site on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's World Heritage list.

The UN says the Curionian Spit is an outstanding example of a landscape of sand dunes that is under constant threat from the wind and tides. After disastrous human intervention menaced its survival, it says the spit was reclaimed by massive protection and stabilization works begun in the 19th century and continuing to the present day.

The spit is home to elk, deer, wild boar, fox, and dozens of species of plants, birds, and butterflies. Activists say the company has not disclosed complete information about the project and its potential impact on the environment.

A hearing on the case has been postponed until mid-September.

The proposed oil field is 22 kilometers from the Curionian Spit and is said to contain about 20 million tons of oil. The oil firm plans to begin drilling in 2004 and says it could extract up to 360,000 tons of oil per year.

Vladimir Sliviak, the head of Ekozashchita, told RFE/RL that the group has written 10 letters to LUKoil asking for more information about the project but has received no replies. "The only way that was left for us was to sue the company," Sliviak said.

LUKoil organized public discussions on the project in May, but Sliviak said they resembled an advertising campaign more than an open forum.

Sliviak said LUKoil received official permission from Russian authorities to drill for oil in the area in 1992. It set up a drilling platform, but protests by the Lithuanian government and environmental groups on both sides stopped further development.

Activists say work began again on the project this past spring.

"There are no activities in the sea, but the activities on land are going on. Metallic constructions are being made for building the second platform in the sea. LUKoil itself is financing the work. They are also making preparations to lay a pipeline on the bottom of the Baltic Sea that will go [from the oil field] to the oil terminal," Sliviak said.

Ekozashchita says it sent letters this week to Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Leszek Miller, warning that the planned sale of a Gdansk refinery to LUKoil would aid its plans to drill more oil from the Baltic.

Natalya Oliferenko, who works for the international ecological organization Greenpeace Russia, said LUKoil is not an open company. She said the information LUKoil has provided on its plans in the Baltic Sea is far from complete. She said critical environmental situations are not discussed. "[LUKoil] can say whatever it wants, but there is no such company that is able to provide 100 percent safety. You should remember that the climate is changing, and we can encounter such gales [in the Baltic Sea] as we have never seen before," Oliferenko said.

RFE/RL tried numerous times to reach the office of LUKoil-Kaliningradmorneft for comment but was unsuccessful. The company's website promises that the project will be safe. The company says it employs experienced specialists, has studied the ecosystem of the Baltic Sea closely, and has taken into account the experiences of Western ecologists.

Oleg Kolesnikov, an aide to the general director of LUKoil-Kaliningradmorneft, told the Russian newspaper "Vedomosti" that there have been serious public discussions of the project and that no scientist in Kaliningrad has reproached the company for ignoring ecological concerns.

Lithuania is as concerned about the company's plans as Russian activists are. Petras Zapolskas, director of the information and culture department at the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told RFE/RL that his ministry "officially asked the Russian Embassy in Lithuania to confirm or to deny that the oil field is being exploited. We got the answer that there are no activities under way seeking to extract oil. They say that only the platform is being reinforced. The Russian Embassy has assured Lithuania that the exploitation of the oil field will begin only after Russia gets the results of an international ecological inspection, saying that it is safe [to drill]."

Zapolskas said Lithuania has contacted UNESCO and has been assured the organization will monitor the activities of the oil company near the Curionian Spit. The UN's World Heritage Committee said it has asked the Russian government to present all information on the oil-field project by 1 October.

The exploitation of oil fields near the shores of Kaliningrad may become a bargaining chip between Russia and the European Union. This week, the chairman of the Russian State Fisheries Committee, Yevgenii Nazdratenko, said in Kaliningrad that if EU enlargement tightens the energy grip on Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia will be forced to extract more oil from the sea.

Speaking to RFE/RL, the deputy chairman of the information department in the Kaliningrad administration, Valentin Yegorov, echoed this attitude. He said the administration is worried that after neighboring Poland and Lithuania join the EU in 2004, the region will be isolated and could face severe energy shortages. In this case, Russian officials say, independent energy supplies would be more important than ecological concerns.