This week Ecojuris Institute, a Russian environmental law group, filed an action at the Supreme Court challenging the Russian government's arbitrary waiver of environmental law to allow Exxon to drill in the pristine marine ecology of the North Pacific and Sea of Okhotsk off the Russian Far East. Transnational corporations, including Exxon and Royal Dutch Shell among others, are proposing to develop off-shore oil reserves in the fragile continental shelf waters off Sakhalin Island off the Pacific coast of mainland Russia.
These transnationals have been aggressively lobbying to have Russia's environmental legislation weakened for the last several years. For example, in 1998 in conjunction with the US Department of Energy and the Russian Ministry of Fuel and Energy, transnational oil companies participated in a seminar in Moscow to generate regulations that would roll back the strict, zero waste discharge requirements of the Russian Federal Water Code. (These requirements were adopted after the near collapse of the Caspian Sea fishery due to oil pollution.)
The current action was triggered in May of this year, when Exxon and its Russian joint venture partner for the Sakhalin-1 oil project, SakhalinMorNefteGas, received a negative governmental review on their environmental impact assessment documents (know in Russian as an environmental expertiza) for their Chaivo Bay drilling block. The State Committee on Environment's review of the project found that the proposed marine discharge of drilling wastes violated Russian law.
Ecojuris Institute filed the action on behalf of over 30 Russian grassroots environmental organizations and individual citizens in the Russian Far East.
The complaint demands that the Court invalidate a decree issued by former Prime Minister Stepashin in his last days in office at the urging of transnational oil corporations. The decree of July 15th is an attempt to override the zero-discharge standards as required by the environmental review, and purports to allow discharge of waste waters and drilling muds used in off-shore oil drilling, even though such discharge is prohibited by Russian federal environmental law.
Additionally, Russian law requires that all draft legislation and decrees that could have environmental impacts must themselves be submitted for an environmental expertiza. Gennady Chegasov, head of the Environmental Expertiza Department at the Russian State Committee on Environment, confirmed that Stepashin's decree has not been subject to this legally mandated environmental review.
"The Russian government is obliged to protect natural resources and ecosystems for the enjoyment of present and future generations of Russian citizens," stressed Ecojuris' president Vera Mischenko. "The Far Eastern shelf and territorial seas are an invaluable and unique natural ecosystem, and are the main source of our country's fishery reserves, the habitat of numerous rare and endangered species of marine animals and plants, and migratory birds," she added. Almost 90% of Russia's total marine and fresh-water fish catch come from these Far Eastern seas.
"Ecojuris' case represents the first time that Russian citizens have tested their government's commitment to the rule of law and to environmental protection when billion dollar transnational investments are at stake," said Erika Rosenthal of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, (USA). "It is also the first time that grassroots organizations from throughout the Russian Far East have joined together to take legal action to protect their seas."