From Lance Armstrong to Russian Arctic Oil: From accountability to impunity

There is a golden thread that links Lance Armstrong, the disgraced American cyclist, to the Greenpeace climbers clambering about the Russian oil well rig in the Arctic.

That thread is called accountability.

In recent days, Greenpeace protesters briefly occupied Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform, Russia’s first offshore exploration rig in the Arctic. Greenpeace opposes all oil exploration in the fragile Arctic environment. Public support for Arctic oil production, narrow in North America, is undermined in Russia by a culture of impunity.

In a bad sign for Russian offshore production, Greenpeace estimates that Russian on land oil producers already spill as much as 35 million barrels a year. Due to low fines and lack of criminal prosecutions, oil spills in Russia are simply a cost of doing business here.

The huge difference between impunity and accountability was highlighted to the world last week in the Lance Armstrong case.

In 1996, Armstrong, then a 25-year-old cyclist, was diagnosed with cancer. It spread from his testicles to his lungs and brain. Against high odds, Armstrong fought back and beat the cancer.

In 1998, he returned to competitive cycling. He went on to win a record seven consecutive Tours de France through 2005, when he retired. The United States Olympic Committee named him Athlete of the Year four times.

Then last week, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency concluded a doping investigation by banning Armstrong from cycling for life and recommended that he be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.

As an indicator of Americans’ shock over the case, The Washington Post story on the anti-doping decision drew 1,164 comments from readers.

Contrast that to Russia, where state oil company executives seem to be part of a protected class.

Last December, a Russian state oil exploration company, Arktigmorneftegazrazvedka, decided to tow a heavy rig across the Sea of Okhotsk. Company executives, based 6,000 kilometers away in the Arctic city of Murmansk, violated a basic rule that every Russian school child knows: Don’t cross the street against the light.

The Sea of Okhotsk shipping season had long closed for the winter. But company executives decided to jaywalk.

The rig was needed in Vietnam. To save money, they stacked the rig with 67 people – about 60 more than necessary. It was cheaper than chartering a plane to fly engineers and workers from Kamchatka to Vietnam.

Several employees made very specific objections based on safety. The company’s response: do it or get fired.

In reality, they got killed. In the worst disaster in the history of the Russian oil and gas sector, 53 men drowned December 18 when the platform encountered a winter storm and sank in the icy waters of the Sea of Okhotsk.

The next day, Russian television viewers were treated to the usual post-disaster video reports on heroic helicopter searches for survivors. In reality, they were searching for bodies. Human beings last about five minutes in 5 degree water.

What state television reporters did not do is bang on doors at the state company and ask executives why they sent the men to their deaths.

Eight months have rolled around. Here is the update.

In March, a company deputy director was fired and another reprimanded. At the June shareholders meeting, the general director was fired and the company’s chief engineer resigned.

Prosecutors are still investigating the case. I have yet to hear of any criminal indictments.

In the only notable judicial development, a Murmansk court declared on August 1 that the 24 missing men are legally dead. This allows their survivors to collect the compensation from Arktigmorneftegazrazvedka.

What is the connection to Greenpeace activists displaying their mountaineering and public relations skills on Gazprom’s Arctic rig and supply vessel?

President Vladimir Putin has declared the Arctic be Russia’s new oil and gas frontier. Given concerns about the impact of oil spills in the Arctic, high north oil production is a hard sell to Western consumers and shareholders in Western oil companies.

It will be an even harder sell if the watchword for Russian Arctic industrial safety and pollution controls is impunity.

The tough justice meted out last week to Lance Armstrong is a reminder that no one should be above the law – not even state oil company executives.


(A team of Greenpeace activists including the Executive Director of Greenpeace International attach themselves  to the anchor chain of the Anna Akhmatova and chain their inflatable to it, preventing the ship from lifting anchor and sailing to the Prirazlomnaya oil platform to complete the work that will allow them to begin drilling in this fragile region. Photo: Greenpeace)



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.