Ukok Pipeline Update: One step forward for Ukok, one step back for sacred sites

O6O1517Two important pieces of news came to light today concerning Altai and the Altai pipeline. First, RIA-Novosti obtained and made public a letter submitted by Gazprom to the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources in which the corporation states that it “has not made a final decision to build the Altai Gas Pipeline across the Ukok Plateau, that it is not currently working on the project, and that there will be no funding allocated to the project in 2014 and 2015”. The letter is signed by Valery Golubev, Gazprom’s Vice Chair of Management.

A number of conservation groups spoke out in support of Gazprom’s move to delay the project, including WWF-Russia, Russia’s Green Party People’s Alliance, Greenpeace, the Save Ukok Coalition, and others. While of course this action by Gazprom is certainly a positive one for the wellbeing of the Ukok Plateau and Altaians in the next few years, strong concerns remain about this project. Gazprom has by no means canceled the project, and indeed, in the week prior, Altai Republic hosted the 21st annual “New Technologies in Oil & Gas, Energy, and Communications Congress”, attend by 130 people including Gazprom representatives and a delegation from China. If Gazprom is truly planning to distance itself from the Altai pipeline project, holding an international conference to discuss major oil and gas infrastructure projects in Gorno-Altaisk appears disingenuous.

Also today, Altai Republic’s Prosecutor’s Office overturned a June 2012 decree for the preservation and development of Altai Republic’s sacred sites. This decree was widely praised last year and was greeted as a step forward in protecting the Altaian people’s cultural and spiritual traditions as well as the physical landscape itself, banning most resource extraction, economic development, and other potentially harmful activities. In overturning the decree, the Prosecutor’s Office cited a number of conflicts with Russia’s federal law “On cultural heritage sites (historical and cultural monuments) of the peoples of the Russian Federation”. Although Altai Republic’s Governor Berdnikov spoke out in support of this decree last June, the decree was seen as leverage against construction of the pipeline across the sacred Ukok Plateau, site of hundreds of cultural and historical monuments, and the Prosecutor’s Office’s action comes as no surprise.

The Altai Project is an active member of the Save Ukok Coalition and while we are pleased that Gazprom is taking environmental and community concerns about the pipeline project seriously, we remain deeply concerned that Russia, Altai Republic, and Gazprom are still considering pipeline construction on the Ukok Plateau, part of the “Golden Mountains of Altai” UNESCO World Heritage Site. Indeed, RIA Novosti quotes Robert Paltaller, chair of Altai Republic’s administration as saying that he hopes the project will be revived: “This project will only bring us pluses, and for this reason, it would be best if work began sooner”.

In 2012 and early 2013, Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation signed a new memorandum of agreement to negotiate and develop a new eastern pipeline route, an action environmentalists hope will negate interest in building a western pipeline through Altai.