India’s coal mining in Kamchatka – “a great environmental crime”

India’s coal mining in Kamchatka – “a great environmental crime”

Former Kamchatka Governor Ilyukhin discusses mineral exploration with Indian company representatives

The attempts of Tata Power Co. to explore Krutogorovskoye Coal Deposit at Kamchatka Peninsula has been for long seen by Russian environmental community as an irresponsible and risky enterprise. It would affect pristine natural landscapes, salmon fisheries, marine ecosystems and ancestral rights of indigenous people. In an interview with Rishika Pardikar(OZY), Eugene Simonov, the RwB’s International Coordinator, discusses how this environmental crime fits into wider efforts of Indian Government to secure its share of the Arctic fossil fuel riches. Now as Russian Ministry of Natural Resources is headed by former Minister of the Development of Eastern Territories Mr. Kozlov, whose agency initiated the Kamchatka coal deal, chances that India may get better pieces of Russian Arctic pies are on the rise.

India won’t just meet its Paris climate accord commitments, it’ll surpass them, Prime Minister Narendra Modi boldly asserted in December. Coming from the leader of the world’s third-biggest polluter, such a statement should be cause for celebration. But away from the rhetoric, India is increasingly eyeing coal, oil and gas from one of the most ecologically vulnerable regions in the world: the Arctic.

For years, India has relied on Australia for coal and the Middle East, Nigeria and the U.S. for oil and gas. Now, at a time when the pandemic has underscored the risks of depending on any one source for key economic ingredients, India is tapping into its decades-old strategic partnership with Russia to mine for fossil fuels.

In late November, Tata Steel — India’s second-largest steel company — announced that it had tested samples of coking coal, which is used to produce the carbon needed to make steel, from Russia. A year earlier, Coal India Ltd., the public sector giant that is the world’s largest coal producer, signed deals with Russia to mine coking coal from that country’s Arctic and Far East regions.

In January 2020, India confirmed its participation in the $157 billion Vostok oil development project in the Arctic led by Russian state-owned energy behemoth Rosneft. Tata Power won a contract in 2017 to mine coal in Kamchatka, a sub-Arctic region in northern Russia. And India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp. holds stakes in the sub-Arctic Sakhalin-1 project in Russia’s Far East.

India is definitely looking toward the Arctic to augment the nation’s fossil fuel needs.

Sulagna Chattopadhyay, president, Science and Geopolitics of Himalaya, Arctic and Antarctic

Environmental groups in both nations are concerned about these investments and their impact on the Arctic. For India, though, the benefits are clear — if at odds with Modi’s claims. At the moment, for example, it depends on Australia for 80 percent of its coking coal imports. Reducing that dependence can’t hurt.

“India is definitely looking toward the Arctic to augment the nation’s fossil fuel needs,” says Sulagna Chattopadhyay, president of Science and Geopolitics of Himalaya, Arctic and Antarctic, a policy and advocacy organization working on polar issues.

To be sure, India isn’t the only player eyeing the Russian Arctic as an energy source. BP is a stakeholder in Rosneft, for instance. More recently, a joint venture between Russian, Chinese and French companies has invested in fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic.

Yet the fact that Indian state-owned firms are leading the country’s charge raises additional questions for New Delhi. OZY sent questions on proposed new investments in coal, oil and gas with Russia to two senior Indian officials — one in the Ministry of Steel, the other in the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. They have yet to respond.

Ironically, India might actually be counting on climate change as a facilitator of its Arctic plans. With rising temperatures keeping the Arctic Ocean ice-free in the summer, a shorter sea route from India is now viable.

For transportation along the [Russian] coast, there is an ice-free route for three, four months a year,” says Eugene Simonov, coordinator of Rivers Without Boundaries (RWB), an international network of organizations and experts working to preserve the health of transboundary river basins in northeast Eurasia. “This wasn’t possible about half a century ago.” During other months, less effort is needed by icebreakers to sustain transportation. Additionally, when ice melts, extracting resources from the earth is easier.

Last year, Dharmendra Pradhan, India’s energy minister, said the country is “keen to explore the new northern sea route to source crude oil and LNG [liquefied natural gas] through Russia’s Arctic.”

There’s a geopolitical angle too, says Chattopadhyay. The U.S. (through Alaska) and Russia hold sway over large parts of the Arctic. China, which calls itself the near-Arctic nation, also exerts considerable influence in the Arctic, making significant infrastructural investments in the region through projects like the Belt and Road Initiative.   

Therefore, it is “imperative for India to be part of this emerging economy so that it is aware of the changing dynamics and is able to tip the resource balance in its favor, ensuring energy security for the nation,” Chattopadhyay says. And, says Simonov, coal from the Russian Arctic will serve India as a useful “bargaining tactic with other coal suppliers like Australia and Indonesia.”

But those gains for India could mean costs for the Arctic. The Kamchatka mining, which Simonov calls the “most advanced Indian coal project in the Russian Arctic” at the moment, is, he says, a “a great environmental crime.” The Kamchatka Peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is already suffering from mineral exploration and extraction activities.

“We [RWB] don’t see how coal could be produced with environmental safety in this wild and vulnerable terrain which is also located near the sea [Pacific Ocean],” Simonov says. “Sea life will be impacted.”

More generally, mining for coal entails landscape-level destruction. Simonov explains how the Kemerovo region in Siberia, one of the largest coal-producing areas in Russia, has experienced air and water pollution, the destruction of forests and geological effects like underground fires from mining activities. The transportation of such mined coal also results in coal dust pollution.

As for the impact of oil drilling, Vladimir Chuprov, Greenpeace Russia’s campaign director, wrote in a working paper that oil companies operating in Russia reported about 10,000 oil pipeline bursts in 2014. Rosneft accounted for 60 percent of those incidents. Oil spills lead to massive contamination of soil and groundwater — including drinking water supplies. In June, Russia suffered a massive 20,000-ton oil leak in the Arctic.

Already, the region has warmed at roughly twice the rate as the rest of the world and is experiencing an increased frequency of wildfires, heat waves and disappearing glaciers. Ships transporting mining resources would threaten the region’s wildlife, including seals, walruses and polar bears.

The Siberian region is also an indigenous stronghold. Simonov says land and cultural rights of indigenous communities engaged in reindeer herding, hunting and fishing have been “infringed” by mining activities.

At the moment, though, Russia appears more interested in exporting its fossil fuels than in protecting the Arctic. It has promised to deliver 28 million tons of coking coal to India by 2025. It’s also trying to attract companies from Germany, Japan and China, among others, to drill for oil. According to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and 30 percent of yet-to-be-found natural gas.

Russia’s ambitions remain undimmed. In December, Rosneft announced its discovery of “a large new gas field in the Arctic Kara Sea” with estimated gas reserves of 800 billion cubic meters. It will be tempting for energy guzzling nations like India to invest there. But at stake is its prime minister’s word — and how India might be remembered by coming generations in the Arctic.

Author: Rishika Pardikar, OZY