Bringing gas from the Siberian wilderness into northern China has long been an ambition of Russia´s state-owned energy giant Gazprom. For almost a decade it has been planning a 2,600-kilometre trunk pipeline that would stretch from new and existing gas fields in central Siberia through the Altai Mountains to China.
Now, following negotiations between the countries in early December, Russian officials say a deal could be finalised within a month, officially launching construction of the controversial project.
However, part of the planned route would take the pipeline over a narrow, 50-kilometre section of border between Russia and China, squeezed between Kazakhstan and Mongolia. This area is home to the Golden Mountains of Altai World Heritage Property and transboundary biosphere reserves important for many rare and iconic species, such as the endangered snow leopard, which was captured on video in the area for the first time in November.
Documents presented to local groups about the plans for constructing the pipeline indicate the wetlands on the plateau will be drained, exacerbating existing water scarcity problems linked to climate change, according to Oksana Engoyan of the local environmental group Altai 21st Century. The drainage could also threaten the headwaters of the rivers, impacting both Russia and China, Engoyan said.
"Ukok is the location of the headwaters, and the headwaters always in all cultures was a forbidden object, not only from the cultural and religious points of view, but also from the ecological perspective, because water is life," Engoyan said.
Critics also say the pipeline threatens archeological and cultural sites considered sacred to local and indigenous communities. "The Ukok Plateau is a sacred place for indigenous people. There are a lot of archaeological and ceremonial sites," said Alexei Knizhnikov, WWF Russia's Oil & Gas officer. He added that experts have mapped the sites and shown that, if allowed to go ahead, the pipeline route would destroy many sacred sites.
Pressure to change pipeline route
Environmentalists are now promoting proposals that would see the pipeline rerouted away from the Ukok Plateau and through Mongolia, and at the same time cancel out the need for a potentially damaging dam, WWF's Knizhnikov said.
The World Bank is looking to fund a new hydropower project to provide much needed electricity to Mongolia's fast-growing economy. But the proposed dam would be built on the Selenga River, which feeds Russia's Lake Baikal, thus threatening the world's largest and deepest freshwater lake.
WWF’s idea, which Knizhnikov said the group is hoping to present to Mongolia and the World Bank, is that the hydropower project be dropped in favor of routing Gazprom’s pipeline through Mongolia, avoiding protected areas. Mongolia would then be able to siphon off some of the gas for electricity generation.
"Then . . . the topic of constructing a hydroelectricity station on the Selenga, which according to our estimation will have major negative effects on the ecology of Baikal, would be closed," Knizhnikov said.
The proposal is unlikely to be greeted enthusiastically by Gazprom as it would require negotiating conditions for its placement in a third country – something the company has refused to consider given the already lengthy negotiations with China and the current plan to deliver the first gas supplies by 2015.
But WWF and a coalition of other local and international environmental groups are ramping up the pressure. Under international law, "countries must avoid actions that can have negative impacts on World Heritage sites in another country,” said Knizhnikov. “In this case, [China] must understand that as a potential buyer of Russian gas, and also possibly its co-investors in the pipeline, they will violate the World Heritage Convention," Knizhnikov said.
The negotiations on a contract for gas delivery have been going on since December 2009, but officials say a breakthrough is imminent. Russian deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich said he expects a gas agreement to be reached as soon as January in a statement following the energy talks.
"I would say there is much more optimism today than ever before," Dvorkovich said in relation to reaching agreements with China on a number of energy projects, including supply of liquefied natural gas, coal and oil, in addition to the gas pipeline.
Gazprom and Russian government officials say a final contract with China is necessary before the pipeline construction can begin. Russian government officials also told UNESCO officials in May that a full environmental impact assessment is required before the final pipeline route will be approved.
But evidence from environmental groups and UNESCO officials show that Gazprom has already invested heavily in preparations for building the pipeline through the Ukok Plateau, including drilling into permafrost, conducting a topographical and geological survey, plus an inventory of cultural sites that could be impacted by the pipeline.
Recent weakening of Russian legislation on protected areas, as well as the low level of protected status of the Ukok Plateau within Russia, are also seen as potential tools for justifying approval of the project at the federal level. In August, the regional government granted Gazprom approval for construction within Ukok.
UNESCO is set to review the conservation status of the Ukok Plateau in February, when it expects to receive a report from the Russian government on the status of the pipeline. The World Heritage Committee has repeatedly said that construction of the pipeline on the Ukok Plateau would be cause to add the Golden Mountains of Altai to its list of world heritage in danger.