The Ministry of Natural Resources is responsible for promoting the large-scale commercial exploitation of Russia's resources and issuing licenses and permits for oil and gas development, mining and water use to generate short-term hard currency revenues. Putin's decree has now given this Ministry authority over the permitting of logging and radioactive waste importation and disposal, as well as control over what has been the most effective environmental protection tool in Russia, the environment "expertiza," or impact assessment.
"This is like letting the cat guard the cream" said Ecojuris' president Vera Mischenko referring to the Russian variant of the fox and the hen house. "The Natural Resources Ministry disregards environmental laws all the time, and has consistently refused to conduct environmental impact assessments as is legally required when issuing mining and other resource extraction licenses."
The suit was brought on behalf of organizations including the Socio-Ecological Union, Russia's largest environmental group, and regional groups from the Far East, Siberia, the Urals and European Russia. It charges that President Putin's decree violated numerous constitutional provisions, including the right to a healthy environment (Art. 42) and citizens' right to participate in government decision-making (Art. 32). Additionally, the suit asserts that the decree was illegal because the Russian constitution
forbids the President from issuing decrees that violate federal laws. The Federal Forest Code, Water Code and other laws state that the Committee on Environmental Protection and the Forest Service shall be independent agencies and enumerate their powers. Finally, Putin's decree violates the 1995 Law on Environmental Expertiza, which requires that all draft legislation and decrees that could have environmental impacts be submitted for the legally mandated environmental review.
Although chronically under-funded, the State Committee on Environmental Protection nonetheless managed to successfully halt a significant number of projects that were determined to have unacceptable environmental impacts. One of its key functions was to conduct independent environmental impact assessments, or "Expertizas." Under the governing legislation the impact assessment is carried out by independent scientific experts not in the employ of the Committee. Additionally, citizens groups are authorized to participate and to perform parallel "public" environmental reviews.
To carry out Putin's decree the Ministry of Natural Resources formed a new Environmental Impact Bureau to conduct environmental Expertizas. These environmental assessments will be carried out by Ministry staff, not by independent experts, and there are no provisions for transparency nor for public participation. Additionally, according to its by-laws, the Bureau will be required to raise much of its own funding, an open door to corruption.
Russian and transnational oil companies, including the US giant Exxon, viewed the Committee on Environmental Protection as an obstacle. Last year when the Committee denied approval of Exxon's environmental assessment documents -- because they indicated that the company planned to dump drilling wastes at sea in violation of Russian law -- Exxon called the Committee's decision to uphold the rule of law an "unjustifiable delay." In response, the company appealed to the Prime Minister for a waiver of environmental law, which they received, but which was subsequently invalidated when Ecojuris challenged it at the Supreme Court.
"Ecojuris' suit marked the first time that Russian citizens demanded, successfully, that their government apply environmental laws to transnational corporations," said Erika Rosenthal of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (USA). "Exxon believed they were above the law, but the Supreme Court showed that democratic institutions have taken root in Russia. The current suit gives the Court the opportunity to demonstrate that President Putin too must abide by the rule of law, and to uphold citizens' constitutional rights to a healthy environment, and to participate in environmental decision-making."
The abolition of the environmental agency comes at a time when Russia faces a wide variety of environmental and public health crises. Environmental problems include vast oil spills and chronic pipeline leaks (releasing millions of tons a year), contaminated drinking water, uncontrolled logging and huge repositories of nuclear and chemical waste. According to a February 2000 report by the now defunct State Environmental Protection Committee, some 61 million Russians in almost 200 cities suffer concentrations of toxic contaminants in the air that are far above the maximum permissible level. More than 120 cities were reported to have concentrations five times above the maximum permitted level.