From Lance Armstrong to Russian Arctic Oil: From Accountability to Impunity

Posted August 28th, 2012 at 1:40 pm (UTC+0)

Greenpeace activist near Gazprom’s only exploration platform in the Russian Arctic. Photo: Greenpeace/Denis Sinyakov

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.

Six Greenpeace activists displayed their climbing — and public relations — skills climbing up the steel wall of Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil platform on Aug. 24. Photo: Greenpeace/Denis Sinyakov

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.

Lance Armstrong, front, talks to reporters after his second-place finish in the Power of Four mountain bicycle race at the base of Aspen Mountain in Aspen, Colo., on Aug. 25. Race-winner Keegan Swirbul, 16, of Aspen, left, claps his hand. One day earlier, the U.S. Anti-Doping Association banned him for life from professional cycling. Photo: AP/David Zalubowski

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.

Lance Armstrong laughs while preparing to take part in the Power of Four mountain bicycle race in Snowmass Village, Colo., on Aug. 25. Photo: AP/David Zalubowski

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.

A passenger ship for 67 men well after the northern shipping season closed? No, a 26-year-old oil drilling rig heading into an Arctic storm in the Sea of Okhotsk. File photo taken 2010 in Murmansk, home of the rig’s owner, Arktikmorneftegasrazvedka. Photo: Reuters/Andrei Pronin

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.

A survivor of the Sea of Okhotsk oil platform sinking is airlifted from a rescue boat. Photo: AP

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?

Greenpeace activists climbing Gazprom’s Arctic platform Friday, shortly before they were doused with water hoses from crew members above. Photo: Greenpeace/Denis Sinyakov

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.

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.

15 responses to “From Lance Armstrong to Russian Arctic Oil: From Accountability to Impunity”

  1. Will says:

    It’s the USADA that’s the disgrace NOT Armstrong as you so pompously wrote.
    The guy never failed a test yet they side with some jealous detractors instead.

    • Bradley says:

      Please stop attacking USADA for doing their job, the evidence will come out soon and then hopefully these types of comment swill stop showing up under news reports

    • JR says:

      “The guy never failed a test yet they side with some jealous detractors instead.”

      There is no proof the witnesses are jealous, envious, hateful, or whatever other derogatory term Armstrong and his defenders want to label them as. Hell, he can’t even call them French this time. His best friend George Hincapie is among the witnesses. I suppose he’s a scumbag as well.

      BTW Will, how many drug tests did Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Tim Montgomery, and many other cyclists fail who were doping?

  2. Gennady says:

    The article is very convincing… but for the Western readership.
    For those who are unfortunate to be in Putin’s Russia the truth is quite opposite. Under Stalin as well as under his ardent follower human life in Russia costs nothing. It’s no wonder that nowadays Russia rapidly dies out.
    Under Mr. Putin (as it was in his idol’s Stalin times) the goal determines the means: when billions dollars are anticipated there should be complete impunity.
    Western consumers and shareholders in Western oil companies have had the chance to watch Putin’s justice in action (Politkovskay, Magnitsky, Pussy Riot, Taisia Osipova ).
    There is a split in understanding of justice done for conscientious westerners and for the enriching class that represents Mr. Putin in Russia.
    There are many evidences that under Stalinists industrial safety and pollution controls never were a priority to authority and never will be.

  3. Helen-Ann Wilkinson says:

    What do you do

    When you are a cancer survivor

    You are hated for living, fighting and winning

    That is what it is all about

    If you had died, they probably would be happy

    We should test the world of poverty and starving worldwide to find
    out why they just don’t roll up and die…Test and sample their DNA

    The human spirit lives over lives
    over drives

    When you are not crying and grovelling they don’t like you

    They never do

    Life is more important than the body

    So many naked and deprived in the world, so what does losing titles mean
    when most are neglected and marginalized

    He never jumped ship or ran over a cliff

    So some people don’t like a fighter, because you didn’t beg and cry

    (c) Helen-Ann Wilkinson –

  4. sicklecyclist says:

    Yes, Ironic that a bicycle racer who never flunked a drug test and whom is responsible for hugely promoting bicycle riding and cancer awareness loses everything he worked the hardest for, but the oil and gas companies always seem to get away with everything, while destroying the environment that sustains our existence.

  5. Foster says:


  6. Mike says:

    The beginning kind of reminds me of the Beslan shootings. While everything is going on, the rest of the Russia is blind to whats happening because no time is allowed on tv for coverage. With Putin gaining control of most television networks, I imagine a similiar event would be just as under wraps.

  7. Andy Dalton says:

    There was a story in NY Times about a coal mine in West Virginia, with the worst safety record, dozens of miners killed every year. The owner of the mine claimed he was above the law since he is the only employer in the region. When another coal mine owner challenged him over safety, he was subjected to to intrusive audits and lawsuits and was forced out of business. After another disaster in which over 20 miners werre killed due to disregard of safety rules, board of directors finally forced the owner to resign. But not before he sold his stake for millions of dollars.

    Russian businessmen now study in the West and apply their new skills in Russia.

  8. Gregory David says:

    The comparison is ridiculous; even in the west. I sympathize with the wishful thinking on the writer’s part. I too wish that all the evil-doing oligarchy swine in the would be brought to justice for their crimes against humanity and the planet, but Armstrong, while perhaps a cheat, is hardly a criminal responsible for the death of 53 people (and the rest of it). Besides, Armstrong has lived his life in the full glare of the media and public opinion, while the Russian company you are trying to bring to light has skulked around, hidden behind it’s many corporate facades. Bad jounalism

  9. pctvguy says:

    The story was a little bit of a stretch to connect the two. But it was informative. But in America, he was tried, proven innocent but given a guilty sentence. I don’t get it!!

  10. Peter Lawton says:

    Was anybody held responsible or arrested for BP oil spill that killed 20 rig workers?

  11. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    a good question — a quick check of wikipedia finds the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 and wounded 17 men.
    There are obviously billions of dollars being paid out for human and environmental losses. On the prosecution end, Wiki writes:
    “Investigations continue, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stating on April 24, 2012, “The Deepwater Horizon Task Force is continuing its investigation into the explosion and will hold accountable those who violated the law in connection with the largest environmental disaster in US history”. The first arrest related to the spill was in April 2012; an engineer was charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting 300 text messages showing BP knew the flow rate was three times higher than initial claims by the company, and knew that Top Kill was unlikely to succeed, but claimed otherwise.”

  12. Gennady says:

    To Peter Lawton:

    Your dissatisfaction with the investigation on the Deepwater Horizon can’t be the reason to let other energy giants (as Gazprom) to rush into unknown. In this matter to observe the context is everything.

    1. The Arctic Ocean, unlike the Gulf of Mexico, with its huge icebergs, temperatures below minus 30-40°, long arctic nights is very dangerous and will test human technology to its limit. Just a few years ago such an endeavor wouldn’t have been even anticipated. Just one political will to extract oil in high altitudes isn’t enough to start the Arctic drilling. I personally don’t believe that Russia is properly prepared to deal with the challenge. The country under its present leadership became a technologically backward nation and nobody in Russia have heard about any appropriate Russian (Gazprom’s) preparations, developed innovations and testing of drilling in the highest altitudes, in inventing methods of coping with possible emergent situations that with high probability might have arisen there. It won’t be an accident with a dozen rig workers killed/maimed and the platform overturned but a full blown continental ecological disaster in inaccessible region that will affect all nations facing the Arctic Ocean. Its consequences will last years to come and will cost huge efforts to overcome.
    2. In nowadays Russia complete unaccountability and irresponsibility of the rulers and major players are the legal reality. In recent years Russia has got a great number of high-profile technological accidents, air disasters, sunken ships, broken river dams and man-made flooding. Down the road industrial safety record and pollution control became even worse. The state of justice done and activity of courts of law (Politkovskay, Magnitsky, Pussy Riot, Taisiya Osipova) are notoriously wide known.

  13. mike says:

    I love all these comments from the yellow wrist band brigade who still stand by Lance. They are totally brainwashed and keep throwing the whole never failed a test crap around. This just goes to prove that they have no clue about how drug tests work or the culture of pro cycling. There are new drugs coming along all the time (CERA anyone, which many pros did nto know a test existed) that are undetecatble and that is not to mention the number of masking agents these athletes use, Frank Schleck is an example of athlete who has obviously been taking somethign to enhance performance yet was caught using a masking agent



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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