Russia Moves into Arctic Oil Frontier With A Lax Safety Culture?

Posted December 22nd, 2011 at 7:00 am (UTC+0)

Stalin keeps popping up at protests in Russia. Almost 60 years after his death, some Russians profess nostalgia for his harsh methods in dealing with incompetence and corruption. Several Stalin images waved Sunday at Russian Communist Party Rally near the Kremlin. AP Photo: Mikhail Metzel

Westerners wonder why images of Stalin ominously pop up at Russian protest rallies. Like most people, Russians cherry pick from their history.

Almost 60 years after Stalin’s death, what appeals to some Russians is not Stalin, the mass murderer, but Stalin, the manager who had incompetents shot.

After six months that brought us the sinking of a decrepit cruise ship drowning dozens of women and children, and the crashing of an aging airplane killing an entire hockey team, now we have an oil drilling platform sinking as it transports 67 men through icy waters — well past the close of the shipping season.

In these three cases, the three companies blame the captain or the pilot, who is, conveniently, dead.

But there is a little snag with Sunday’s sinking of the Kolskaya, an oil rig in the Sea of Okhotsk. The captain was so opposed to moving the 26-year-old drilling rig that he resigned. The rig owner, Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR), refused to his accept his resignation, essentially forcing him to gamble on the passage.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current czar, repeatedly tells the world that Russia’s new oil frontier is the Arctic. Last year in Moscow, at Russia’s annual Arctic conference, I recorded Mr. Putin assuring international Arctic experts that, in the wake of the BP oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, Russia would only adhere to the highest safety and environmental standards when drilling in the Arctic.

But if recent experience is a guide, there will be a meandering investigation of the rig sinking, and then Sunday’s disaster will be swept under the rug. Fifty-three men are dead, no one will go to jail, much less to the firing squad. Russia’s lax safety culture will lumber into the Arctic Energy Era.

On Monday, in a separate case, we again saw this modern syndrome of burying official incompetence. Survivors of 130 people who died in the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater finally won their first judgment against the Russian government – from the European Court of Human Rights. In the siege, police pumped knock out gas into the theater, which had been seized by 40 Chechen terrorists. Although dozens of ambulances were parked outside, no one in the police provided medics with antidotes. Almost all fatalities among the theater-goers were attributed to the knock out gas.

A passenger ship for 67 men well after the northern shipping season closed? No, a 26-year-old oil drilling drig in the wrong place at the wrong time. File photo taken last year in Murmansk, home of the rig's owner, Arktikmorneftegasrazvedka.Reuters Photo: Andrei Pronin

Sunday’s oil rig sinking in the Arctic involved the kind of stunning incompetence that most nations would probably rule criminal.

For starters, the rig arrived to work off the west coast of Kamchatka peninsula in September, at a time when most operations prepare to close down for the season. In the winter, winds barrel down from the Arctic creating dangerously high seas and then pack ice. AMNGR, the rig owner, evidently feared that their rig would be damaged in the ice. So they attempted a 500 kilometer crossing of the Sea of Okhotsk to a safe harbor, south of the 50th parallel in Sakhalin. The safer route south is longer — island hopping down the Kuriles.

I have made about five trips to Sakhalin, all to report on the offshore oil business. If you fly north from Hokkaido at this time of year, you with see floating equipment stored safely for the winter, in Wakkanai, Japan or, in Korsakov, Sakhalin’s southernmost port. For some reason, the owners of the rig decided to move it south almost two months after it had finished drilling, in October.

Sergei Loiko, of The Los Angeles Times, talked to Lyudmila Kozlova, the widow of Alexander Kozlov, the rig captain.
“My husband called me several times and said that the mission was suicidal, as it was prohibited to transport rigs in those waters between Dec. 1 and Feb. 29,” Kozlova told Loiko by phone from the port of Murmansk. “He said the waves were very high, and the wind was very strong and cold and if the platform got all iced over it would surely capsize, which turned true in the end.”

Widows of other crew members have told other media outlets that their husbands had deep misgivings about attempting a crossing in mid-December.

Compounding the tragedy, the rig was carrying 67 people, 14 more than its crew of 53. Because oil rigs can be highly unstable, Russian and international regulations stipulate that only a skeleton crew be on board when rigs are being moved. Of the 67 people on board during the crossing, 60 could have sailed instead on the ice breaker and the tugboat that led the southbound convoy.

So, here is an unstable rig, packed with people like an inter-island ferry in Indonesia, attempting a dangerous northern crossing — out of season.

How did the Yuri Melekhov, AMNGR’s acting general director, describe the disaster at press conference Monday in Murmansk? Force majeure.

The dictionary defines that as “an unexpected and disruptive event that may operate to excuse a party from a contract.”
Presumably AMNGR’s response is legal positioning in hopes of getting some insurance money. I don’t know what company, if any, insured the rig. But the phrase “force majeure” is unlikely to impress international insurers like Lloyds of London, which are very well versed in the arcane world of northern shipping seasons and ice-class vessels.

A friend who worked in oil and gas exploration offshore of Sakhalin emailed me Tuesday: “As I recall, there is a law or reg that requires all rigs to be south of the 50th parallel by 15 Oct, for just this reason. Puts operators under a lot of pressure to get all the work done in one season. So what were they doing out there two months after the deadline? I suspect irregularities, and if it involves Gazprom we’ll not hear more about it.”

Gazprom, Russia’s state energy giant, contracted the research by the exploration rig. But Gazprom is washing its hands of the disaster, saying its contract ended Dec. 4, two weeks before the sinking. And, since Russia’s move into Arctic energy is to be based in Murmansk, Moscow is going to need companies like AMNGR.

If potential criminal negligence surrounded the sinking, more incompetence surrounded the rescue effort.

Although the sinking took place in daylight and stretched out for 20 minutes, the two accompanying ships in the convoy, the icebreaker and tugboat, only managed to rescue one out of five men on board.
From the rig, life rafts were launched empty. In a 21st century version of the Titanic, most men stayed on the deck, believing until too late they were going to be rescued by helicopter.

Some men, in what can only be described as superhuman feats of strength, donned wetsuits and managed to swim far enough in the freezing water to avoid getting pulled down in the deadly whirlpool created by the massive, multi-ton structure as it sank 1,000 meters to the ocean floor.

On nearing the accompanying ships, exhausted survivors apparently encountered more incompetence.

“They thought we would be clambering up, but we were already too weak,” the rig’s chief, Alexander Kovalenko, told a television interviewer. “Everyone shouted, ‘Lifeboats, lifeboats, rafts.’”
“I do not know why captains of the rescue vessels did not drop their rafts,” said Kovalenko, evidently still weak from hypothermia.

The first Russian seamen to venture into the Arctic were the Pomors. About 1,000 years ago, they sailed north out of the White Sea. Braving these icy waters, these resourceful sailors presumably did not need to consult a safey manual before stretching out a hand to a man overboard.

Russia's experience in Arctic waters date back to the Pomors who sailed north out of the White Sea about 1,000 years ago. Painting by Valentin Serov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Ten years ago, I was on a list to travel by helicopter to visit Hibernia, the world’s largest oil producing platform, off shore of Newfoundland, in the North Atlantic.
The trip did not take place. Exxon Mobil, the operator, insisted that I take two days of cold water safety training, two days that I did not have. I settled for sitting in a conference room in St. Johns, watching a video about Hibernia.

As Russia moves into the Arctic energy frontier, it is time to implement tough safety regulations and to end impunity for managerial incompetence. You can be smart tough — without being Stalinist.

Addendum: I read in today’s Moscow Times, that the captain of cargo ship that steamed by the sinking Bulgaria without stopping was fined by a judge the equivalent of $4,200. The court accepted his argument that if he stopped his ship, he risked crushing the Bulgaria’s lifeboats. hmmm…
Next up is the case of tugboat captain who also did not stop.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

11 responses to “Russia Moves into Arctic Oil Frontier With A Lax Safety Culture?”

  1. Andrey says:

    Thanks, James,
    it is certainly best report I’ve read since accident with “Kolskaya” took place. Russian rule have never being philanthropic to it’s citizens. People being treated like worst slaves. Idiots as rulers are also very traditional, since they have being nominated not by many, but the ruling idiots.

  2. Mary says:

    Very sad but very true.

  3. Elena says:

    Author is a hypocrite!
    You should remember Mexican Gulf, coastal waters of Nigeria and so on. When Russia had cancelled the contract with BP for environmental reasons they said it was just an excuse. Double standards everywhere!

    • yasha says:

      The author is pointing out blatant violations of russia’s own regulation, this is highly informative to the public. (And certainly enraged me.) This can only be called hypocrisy if the author was personally involved in BP fiasco. And even then who cares, so long as the present article is factually accurate.

  4. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    today’s topic is safety in Russia, where we all live
    Here is a letter that dropped into my private email box from a Russian woman editor, who is raising her child in Moscow…
    (the Bulgaria, as you recall, is the antique riverboat that passed all safety checks…)

    “You know, my personal opinion is – things arenot going to change until a few of these so-called “managers,” the ones that are directly responsible for these disasters, end up shot in thehead. I’m no fan of vigilante justice – but this is where thingsare headed. When that Swiss air traffic controller was shot dead by a guy wholost his family in the plane crash – the Nashisti cheered, of course. But seeing this kind of thing go down against fellow Russian citizens will be a different kettle of fish.

    I will always be amazed at the argument in court over the woman who had the Bulgariaunder contract. Her lawyer said that they shouldn’t be putting her incustody, because she has children at home. Every single person I talked to thatweek said the same thing – she needed to be put in custody for her ownsafety. Her children would be left motherless otherwise.”

  5. Ainur says:

    James, thank you for this article. Totally agree with you and Andrey.
    Unfortunately Safety standards were not followed and this is clear to most of us (at least to all involved in this industry). I wish these people had stood up before the trip and refused to take the order from their managers / customer / whoever – refused all as one, and they would be absolutely right. I wish this culture of thinking safety of your own and people around you first, even if it costs you your job, would be cultivated finally to have this scenario possible in our world.

  6. shawn of raytown says:

    if the world had a few billion less people we wouldn’t need the stupid oil. all you breeders out there… please think before raising more consumers.

  7. Pyotr says:

    Well, I just imagined what would have been the consicuencies if there had happened a disaster like in Mexican gulf. How much time has it taken to clog the tap on the sea floor? Half of the year, I presume. Well this took so long even in warm latitudes, and having all the best engineers in the world! I guess this kind of accident would have turned into the worst ever ecological disaster on the globe course it seems immpossible a task for the corrupted and monopolised oil industry of Russia!

  8. […] don’t hear about similar disasters in countries like Norway or Canada nearly as often. This blog post from the Voice of America’s Russia Watch on the sinking of the Kolskaya is highly informative […]

  9. Doroteo Arango says:

    I thought you people had disappeared when the Cold War ended, but I can see that you still keep fomenting sabotage, destabilization and the American Way of life or whatever is left of that nightmare now that the Chinese owns the mortgage of your house…..I hope you collapse soon.

  10. […] don’t hear about similar disasters in countries like Norway or Canada nearly as often. This blog post from the Voice of America’s Russia Watch on the sinking of the Kolskaya is highly informative […]



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 in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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