Firuza Achilova Aug. 4, 2017, 10:03 a.m.

Environmental concerns are priority in the Arctic, but the Caspian Sea can only dream about it!


World oil and gas industry covers all developed countries. For many states it is the main source of income and industry sector defining the stability of currency and internal economics.

Crude oil and natural gas are found in more than 50 countries and produced by more than 25 countries, both underground and under water, that serves for further sustainable development of the infrastructure of these regions.

At the moment, the exploration of the Arctic region (area – approximately 27 million km2) seems to be particularly interesting, especially in comparing with the previous decades.

This region is primarily important for the Scandinavian countries because of their main interests are accumulated right there. It is well-known fact that Norway, Finland and Sweden have strong views on the environmental problem and rationale using of resources. And the Arctic region is not an exception!

For example, the Kingdom of Norway, the ”official” Arctic state, considers the development of the northern regions as the main strategic task of its internal and external politics. In 2006 Norway became the first country accepted the development strategy of the northern regions. In 2014 the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Norway presented a report “The Arctic Policy of Norway”. According to these documents the priority tasks of Norway in the Arctic are providing the stability of this region, establishment of the system of international cooperation with other countries through the Arctic Council, scientific research aimed at the sustainable development of this region, recognition of the international maritime law principles.

Now it is hard to believe that only 40 years ago Norway used to be a poor fishing country and the Norwegians used to go to America to earn money. The situation radically changed when oil production started in the Northern Sea where the main Norwegian oil platforms are accumulated.

One can estimate the wellbeing of this country taking into account its natural resources such as oil and natural gas and its gold and currency reserve. It is known that Norway is one the leading countries exporting oil and participating in the international tenders.

The Arctic Region accumulates a great number of undeveloped energy resources. It accumulates approximately 90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas under ice. But the industrial exploration of these areas requires the newest technologies!

The exploration of the Arctic resources requires new types of equipment for exploration and production drilling designed for year-round operation and long-term autonomous work in the conditions of the Arctic shelf. In this respect drilling, field facilities construction and transportation of hydrocarbons fully under water look as a promising solution.

Norway is without doubt a leader in the application of underwater technologies for the exploration of offshore oil and gas fields. It managed to create its own national innovative system and make it a part of the global one, it managed to make foreign corporations working at the local market perform the localization of their technologies and share them with Norwegian scientific-research institutes.

Norway pays special attention to the environmental problems such as climate change leading to melting of glaciers and consequently sea level rise, environmental degradation and pollution of the arctic waters by oily products. The Kingdom of Norway supports the policy focused on the regulation of critical environmental standards preventing the pollution of the Arctic marine environment.

Norway having direct access to the Arctic shore is interested in the solution of these problems since 80 % of marine transportation in the Arctic pass through the Norwegian waters which has an impact on the natural environment.

In accordance with its Arctic policy Norway actively cooperates with other countries in respect of safety issues and emergency response, search and rescue activities in the Arctic and oil spill response.

But in spite of the environmental component of its policy, Norway is still interested in the production of subsoil resources of the Arctic bottom and their transportation. Among the western European countries Norway possesses the largest reserves of gas and oil. This industry is highly important for the national economics. Oil and gas industry makes more than 20 % of GDP and more than 45 % of export income. Norway’s current and future wellbeing is largely based on energy resources.

At the same time in spite of a growing interest to the Arctic natural resources, Norway strives to follow the environmental standards and constantly tightens responsibilities in this area.

Finland and Sweden are also among the Arctic nations. But they do not have direct access to the northern waters and thus their status is different from the position of the countries of the Big Arctic Five, including Norway. They form their Arctic policy paying special attention to scientific research, environmental protection and international cooperation, but not the Arctic natural resources production.

Finland published its Arctic strategy in 2010. It was focused on environmental protection, development of economic activities and know-how, infrastructure and transport development, participation of the peoples of the North in the Arctic policy development. Thus, the protection of the Arctic natural environment is one of the most important tasks of this Scandinavian state.

Fuel industry of Finland is also worth paying special attention to. Until 1940s more than 60 % of energy was provided by timber, hydropower stations provided only 12.5 % of energy and mineral fuel – only 25 %. Today only 20 % of energy needs are covered by internal resources. The country annually imports 14-15 mln tons of oil and oil products, more than 4 million of coal and approximately 1 million cubic meters of natural gas. Oil and oil products consumption has a positive impact on the development of the petrochemical industry.

8 northern countries (the USA, Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark) signed a declaration and approved the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) at the meeting of ministers for foreign affairs in Finnish Rovaniemi in 1991. This strategy covers the protection of the Arctic ecosystems (including people); environmental protection, improvement and restoration; sustainable use of natural resources.

It demonstrates that Finland as an oil and gas importer strives to preserve the fragile northern environment.

It has already been mentioned that Sweden like Finland does not have direct access to the Arctic Ocean and is an importer of hydrocarbons, particularly natural gas, from Denmark to Stockholm.

The Kingdom of Sweden actively participates in the arctic affairs. According to the Arctic Strategy of Sweden its main tasks are preserving the Arctic as a region with low political tensions, strengthening of international cooperation, environment and biodiversity protection, prevention of permafrost melting and greenhouse gases emissions and elimination of their global consequences, economic development of the region.

Thus, thanks to the growing importance of the Arctic region, particularly due to economic and strategic benefits becoming available because of changing climate conditions, Scandinavian countries (Norway, Finland and Sweden) continue to focus on the solution of a complex problem related to the escalation of environmental situation, its improvement and normalization.

But if you have a look at the world map, you will see that the situation in the Middle East, where the Caspian bordering countries including Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenia and Iran cannot solve the environmental problem related to the Caspian Sea condition, is totally different.

Ecological problems of the Caspian Sea became so visible that made political and economic conflicts of the Caspian bordering countries related to sharing the shelf less important during the last years. Ecological solutions and protocols are first to be approved, but experience has proven that unfortunately it is still very far from their accurate and uncompromising execution.

At the moment imposing a moratorium for industrial sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea for 5-7 years is being discussed. All Caspian bordering countries excluding Turkmenistan are for it. This problem arose in relation to the ecological condition of the sea, the threat of various pollutions, the condition of fish resources, severe reduction of the number of species and severe reduction of sturgeon’s lifespan from 150 years to 40 years.

If further marine pollution, oil blowout from production fields and drilling platforms are allowed, there is a risk to lose the Caspian Sea as a living water body at all. It will cause not only an enormous economic harm, but also irreparable environmental damage. The Caspian Sea tourism projects development will not be possible, and it will have an extremely negative impact on the health of people living in the coastal territory.

Of course, certain steps were taken to protect the Caspian Sea. In 2006 the Tehran Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment was ratified. In December 2012, the Protocol for the Protection of the Caspian Sea against Pollution from Land-based Sources was signed at the 4th session of the Conference of Ministers. It is a significant progress since the problem of pollution from land-based sources was separated from the general problems of the sea for a long time, and it took six years to agree upon the document. Now according to the signed protocol the Caspian bordering countries will report about measures taken to prevent harmful discharges from land to the sea.

But it is already not enough. Turkmenistan occupies “a special position” in this situation. It verbally supports environmental measures but does not undertake any real steps. Turkmen ecologists consider their spot of the coast the cleanest one but it is not true. First of all, mud oil was produced on the coast of Turkmenistan already in the 18th century. Oil was loaded to the tankers from the Turkmenbashi port, and the Turkmenbashi Oil Refinery Plant heavily contributes to pollution. Thus, the Turkmen coast has accumulated oil pollution.

Already now oil reserves on the Turkmen shelf amount to one third of the minimal estimates of the Kashagan field reserves. Turkmenistan continues insisting on the construction of the Transcaspian gas pipeline convincing that environmental risks will be minimal. Turkmen specialists refer to the experience of the Baltic Sea and Northern Sea, but as has already been said the Caspian Sea is different from these seas. The Caspian Sea is not washed by a powerful flow of fresh water while the Baltic Sea is washed by the Neva River. On the contrary, the two flows of the current, from the north to the south next to the western shore, and from the south to the north next to the eastern shore, carrying a great volume of pollution, pass near the Apsheron Threshold, where it is proposed to construct a gas pipeline. Both flows meet in the middle part of the sea. The construction of a gas pipeline may lead to the situation when both flows mix and it will cause a sharp increase of pollution in this part of the sea. This is where the absence of a complex pollution monitoring, analysis of pollution spread and its impact may lead.

So, the “special position” of Turkmenistan in relation to environmental issues is quite risky and may become the last straw turning the Caspian Sea into a dead water body. Declarations and signing of protocols are good but until now Turkmenistan has not performed any visible activities in the area of environmental protection. According to the available media information the government of Turkmenistan is more concerned with the purity of air in Ashkhabad.

This “special position” of Turkmenistan will make it face cruel real life when people start massively escaping from Aktau, Atyrau, Turkmenbashi, and the touristic zones in Avaza and Kenderli are to be closed. Today’s environmental cynicism of Turkmenistan will cost it a lot. But it will be too late, and other Caspian bordering countries will say that Turkmenistan should have thought about it earlier.

What will the Middle East countries do in this situation, and will Turkmenistan be able to adopt the environmental strategy of the Arctic countries or not? These are open ended questions.