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Russia’s Norilsk oil spill, the Arctic Circle’s worst ecological disaster

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Ryan Lee

In late May, a fuel tank owned by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel ruptured, leaking more than 20,000 tons of diesel oil into the Ambarnaya river in what has been contended as the Arctic’s worst oil spill to date. The leak became known to authorities only after satellite pictures of the leak surfaced on social media. President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency in attempts to tackle the disaster, but the spill began to reach the glacial Lake Pyasino, feeding into the Kara Sea, a part of the Arctic Ocean. [1]

Russian Minister for Emergencies Yevgeny Zinichev informed Mr Putin that the Norilsk plant had spent two days trying to contain the spill, before alerting his ministry. [2] This deliberate reluctance to report oil spills and the downplaying of their severity is common practice across the oil industry, with most marine oil spills labelled ‘minor,’ being swept under the rug.

The oil spill has prompted heavy warnings from environmental groups, warning that the scale of the spill and geography of the river will make the spill exceptionally difficult to clean up. Greenpeace has compared it to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, while Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Russia's environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, said there had "never been such an accident in the Arctic zone.” [3]

Authorities have estimated that the clean-up could cost 100bn roubles (£1.2bn) and take between 5 to 10 years [4]. Norilsk Nickel has pledged to “eliminate the consequences of the accident at its own expense,” while challenging a request for more than $2 billion from Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, which has stated that the damage to the Arctic could be unprecedented. [5] Rosprirodnadzor had previously asked the miner to pay the fine voluntarily, but has now looked to the courts to retrieve the money, which it says will be used to repair ecological damage to the Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers. [6]

Will Norilsk Nickel eliminate the consequences of the spill?

Norilsk Nickel has already been found guilty in 2016 for a similar incident, but emerged from this with only a fine of less that $1,000. [7]

Although the oil industry boasts a safety culture, it is easy to pierce through this guise to see that it operates with a greed culture. Over the years, the industry has become proficient at selling an illusion by telling regulators and stakeholders what they want to hear about oil spills. In the past, executives have claimed that their companies recovered 95% of spilled oil. [8]

The overbearing political pressure to make unrealistic progress in cleaning up oil spills routinely sacrifices any duty to properly evaluate what kind of response might actually work long term. The industry gives little indication of any comprehensive plan, other than a blanket statement along the lines of “we will clean it up.” There is a tendency for responsible authorities and industries to deploy technologies mainly because of their optics and with little regard for their efficacy. [9]

With disproportionately low fines and lax supervision, oil companies have found it profitable to cover up spills, dump sand on leaks, and do everything but invest in quality infrastructure and effective clean-ups. With the support of corporate law doctrines of separate legal identity and limited liability, and the refusal of the courts to lift the corporate veil, the parent corporations are in a position to divert responsibility from themselves and the harmful behaviour of their subsidiaries. [10]

Will such devastating incidents be prevented from occurring again?

As much as more effective systems of response, advanced equipment, and transparency after the fact will help minimise the damage of oil spills, prevention should be the primary focus.

In light of the accident, President Vladimir Putin has signed legislation aimed at preventing similar spills, requiring companies involved in oil production or handling other hydrocarbons to have adequate resources for a contingency plan in the case of a spill. [11] The law makes it mandatory for companies to have sufficient financial reserves to prevent potential spills or clean them up if they occur. The law also requires companies handling hydrocarbons to draw up plans to prevent and clean up spills by January 1, 2024. [12]

Environmentalists have put forward that the Norilsk spill has once again proved that the public should have a role when Norilsk Nickel – and any other major oil company – discusses its plans for environmental safety and response to accidents. Alexei Knizhnikov, who oversees the business and environmental responsibility programme for Russia’s chapter of the WWF, contended that, had there been some form of public participation when Norilsk Nickel drew up its oil spill response plans, the fact that the company lacked critical clean-up equipment would have been obvious. However, most companies resist the inclusion of public council and environmental organisations, thus prevention may not be possible. [13]



  1. Anna Kireeva, Oil Spill in Russia Arctic had many causes, Environmentalists say (Bellona, 22 Jun 2020) < > accessed 24 Nov 2020.

  2. BBC, Arctic Circle oil spill prompts Putin to declare state of emergency (BBC, 4 Jun 2020) < > accessed 24 Nov 2020.

  3. Deeksha Sharma, Environmental Accountability: Russia’s Norilsk Oil Spill (Jurist, 30 Jun 2020) < > accessed 24 Nov 2020.

  4. Ibid (n2).

  5. Andrew Fawthrop, Russian environment watchdog takes legal action over Nornickel’s $2bn diesel-spill pay-out (NS Energy, 11 Sep 2020) < > accessed 24 Nov 2020.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Oceanographic Staff, Oil spill in Arctic Circle forces Putin to declare state of emergency (Oceanographic, Jun 2020) <,one%20of%20Russia's%20most%20polluted > accessed 25 Nov 2020.

  8. Andrew Nikiforuk, Why We Pretend to Clean Up Oil Spills (Smithsonian Magazine, 12 Jul 2016) < > accessed 25 Nov 2020.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid (n3).

  11. Reuters Staff, Putin signs law requiring firms to be ready for oil spills (Reuters, 13 Jul 2020) < > accessed 25 Nov 2020.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid (n1).

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