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Russian who urged Arctic conservation is unbowed after Putin's insult

The fragile Arctic region should become 'a huge biospheric preserve' with a ban on oil drilling and military actions, Russian professor Sergei Medvedev says.

November 08, 2013|By Sergei L. Loiko
  • "The Arctic should become like the Antarctic: open for scientific research, tourism and any noncommercial expeditions," says political science professor Sergei Medvedev, pictured in October at the Architecture Museum in Moscow.
"The Arctic should become like the Antarctic: open for scientific… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)

MOSCOW — Political science professor Sergei Medvedev, a longtime lover and explorer of the Arctic, drew the ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin when he recently called for international protection of the icy northern region in the face of economic development plans.

Last month, Putin called Medvedev, who teaches at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, "a moron."

The incident prompted a nationwide discussion of the Arctic and coincided with the arrest of 30 Greenpeace activists protesting a Russian oil drilling project in the region.

Medvedev, 46, who anchors popular television shows and studied and worked for 15 years in the West, spoke to The Times last month at the Architecture Museum in downtown Moscow.

What is happening in the Arctic today that should raise concern among the international community?

Many in Russia view the Arctic as a big pie and our oil companies are heading off into its reaches. I think the Arctic is now on the threshold of a tectonic ecological shift which bodes a catastrophe if its shelf is subjected to massive deep-water drilling and should it become a massive shipping thoroughfare. Given the challenges of the region: harsh weather conditions, icebergs and fields of ice, sudden and wild storms, it makes accidents all but unavoidable, such as oil spills from tankers and drilling platforms on a scale compared to which the [2010] oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may appear a minor incident.

You have been promoting the idea of international control over the Arctic, haven't you?

No one should have sovereign control over the Arctic like no one has sovereign control over the Antarctic. True, it is a huge seawater area, a significant part of which lies in the Russian exclusive [200-nautical-mile] economic zone where Russia can do deep-water drilling. But Russia prefers to see this as a situation in flux and wants to prove that its shelf reaches from its continental part all the way to the North Pole. It is quite symbolic that ... in its [Sochi 2014] Olympic torch ... relay, the torch was taken to the North Pole in a festive ceremony, as if marking the territory.

What is the role of Russian energy giant Gazprom in all of this?

They don't possess any proven technology of drilling in Arctic conditions, let alone cutting-edge technologies. Such technologies don't exist and no one has done that yet. But Gazprom was the first to undertake this Arctic gamble. Ten months a year the sea is frozen, so Gazprom now has to build a large fleet of icebreakers, for which it can claim huge state subsidies.

What is the problem with the Prirazlomnaya oil drilling platform, which belongs to a Gazprom subsidiary?

Prirazlomnaya platform is a parody of any serious approach to oil drilling, especially in the Arctic. Manufactured in 1984 it was written off in 2002 [as] having exhausted its resource and then suddenly sold to Russia as a top part to be towed and mounted on an underwater carcass [60 miles off the coast of Russian Novaya Zemlya] — a written-off Norway platform top resting on a rusty Russian structure stuffed with Russian-made unreliable and faulty equipment. For two years they were desperately trying to make it work, one accident on top of another. When and if it is brought into motion it will become potentially a huge, dangerous bomb with its 100,000-ton storage tank.

Mind you, an oil spill in the Arctic is far more dangerous [than one in the Gulf of Mexico], given its potential environmental implications.

Just imagine thousands of tons of oil leaked under fields of ice in the middle of the Arctic night. This said, oil doesn't decompose in freezing cold water as it does in the warm seawater of the Gulf of Mexico. It will stay there for decades, killing every living organism in the vicinity. It will be worse than a horror movie catastrophe.

The Kremlin however treats Prirazlomnaya as a symbol of national sovereignty, the frontier bastion of Russia we need at all means to guard and protect from Greenpeace pirates and insidious attacks from the West.

What do you think about the arrest of the Greenpeace activists who were trying to climb the side of Prirazlomnaya to protest oil drilling in the Arctic? They face now up to seven years in prison for hooliganism.

The activists sitting now in Murmansk prisons are here on behalf of humanity, but they were in fact primarily protecting Russia's interests because we will be the first casualty should Prirazlomnaya suffer a major spill.

Did the arrest of Greenpeace activists come as a surprise to you?

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