After Shuffle, Mitvol Promises to Press On

Russian and foreign companies whose activities are deemed by the authorities to pose serious environmental threats will see no relief this year despite the resignation of the federal environmental watchdog's chief, a senior official said Monday.

Oleg Mitvol, deputy to the outgoing chief, Sergei Sai, said the regulator "would target big and very big companies" for thorough checks on their compliance with environmental standards starting next month.

"A comprehensive list of the big foreign and Russian companies slated for inspection will be published from Jan. 25," Mitvol said by telephone. He declined to identify any of the companies.

"We plan to inspect the largest companies -- the biggest offenders in environmental pollution and the biggest violators in utilization of subsoil assets," he said.

Sai said late last week that he was stepping down, citing as among the reasons a dispute with Mitvol and his frustration with bureaucracy. "We lost control. For example, the head of the [regulator] does not appoint his own deputies," Sai said, Interfax reported.

"Instead of being able to issue an ordinary reprimand to the head of a regional department, I have to write a letter to the minister to initiate an administrative investigation," he added.

In December 2006, Sai wrote a letter to Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev, who oversees the regulator, requesting an investigation into Mitvol's activities, as well as his dismissal.

But in a reversal, Sai himself was publicly criticized by Trutnev for losing "control over compliance with environmental laws in the development of mineral resources." Trutnev said he would ask the government to consider reprimanding Sai, whose agency conducted half as many checks in 2006 as in 2005.

Sai said he submitted his resignation to Trutnev on Dec. 26 and that his last day in the office would be Thursday.

A Natural Resources Ministry spokesman refused to comment.

It was not immediately clear who would be appointed as Sai's replacement. Analysts predicted that it would be Mitvol. "Unlike Oleg Mitvol, Sergei Sai never wielded any power while in office, and his departure will have no effect on the activities of [the agency]," said Valery Nesterov, an oil analyst with Troika Dialog.

Mitvol curtly dismissed the suggestion as speculation. "As of now, I am the deputy head," he said.

Mitvol grabbed headlines after opening a number of high-profile inspections into foreign companies, fueling talk that he was waging a takeover battle on behalf of the government. In 2006, Mitvol led a probe into a Shell-led Sakhalin-2 natural gas project that was not closed until Shell ceded control to state-run Gazprom. In March, Mitvol opened an inspection into the ExxonMobil-led Sakhalin-1 project and threatened to revoke TNK-BP's license for Kovykta.

A total of 227 inspections undertaken by the agency last year led to the withdrawal of 127 licenses.

Mitvol said his campaigns had caused the attitude toward natural resources to "change for the better" and companies "are becoming more civilized" in relation to the environment.