Supreme Court Rejects Baikal Pipeline Appeal

The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an appeal against the route of a controversial Siberian oil pipeline that will go past the world's largest freshwater lake, an environmental campaigner said.

The high court ruled that a government decision in December authorizing construction of the 4,100-kilometer pipeline taking oil to lucrative Asian markets was legitimate, said Mikhail Krendlin of the Russian branch of Greenpeace.

The Kremlin-backed, 1.6 million-barrel-per-day pipeline is to run from southern Siberia to the Pacific coast, allowing increased oil exports to the energy-hungry markets in China, Japan and South Korea.

Krendlin said environmental groups were planning to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court's appeals board.

State environmental regulators on Monday gave final approval to routing that will put one section of the pipeline close to Lake Baikal, a route environmental groups say would pose a serious ecological threat in case of a spillage. The pipeline, which would follow the route of a railway line around the lake, would be less than a kilometer from Baikal's shore.

The lake, which reaches a depth of more than 1,600 meters, contains one-fifth of the world's fresh water and up to 1,500 unique species of plants and animals. It has also been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations agency UNESCO.

Environmentalists said members of regulatory agency that signed off on the deal had been pressured and intimidated to ensure a favorable vote. "Given the kind of pressure there has been, I was expecting this decision," Krendlin said. Transneft, the state-controlled pipeline operator that will build the $11 billion project, has denied any attempts to pressure the panel, but has said that rerouting the pipeline would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Transneft vice president Sergei Grigoriyev has said the existing route is ecologically safe and that proximity to the railway would allow the company to bring construction workers and equipment easily into the isolated area.

But Roman Vazhenov, head of the Baikal program at Greenpeace, warned that the pristine lake was located in a seismically active zone, with strong earthquakes occurring every two decades.

Stephen O'Sullivan, oil and gas analyst with Deutsche Bank, said the project had the personal backing of President Vladimir Putin.