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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Does an About-Face on Baikal

Itar-TassVainshtok, left, Putin and Lavyorov looking at a map of the Baikal basin at a meeting with Siberian governors and Cabinet members in Tomsk on Wednesday.
TOMSK -- President Vladimir Putin abruptly shifted course Wednesday when he called for rerouting the proposed Far East oil pipeline away from Lake Baikal.

His remarks stunned Semyon Vainshtok, the president of pipeline monopoly Transneft, who had just made the case for the safety of the planned route, which was to come within 800 meters of the lake.

Environmentalists, equally stunned, were elated.

"The pipeline system we are talking about must go along the watershed, north of Lake Baikal's watershed," Putin said at a meeting with Siberian governors and Cabinet ministers in Tomsk ahead of the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"If there is the tiniest danger of polluting Baikal, then, taking into account future generations, we must do everything not simply to minimize this danger but to eliminate it," Putin said.

The pipeline, which would link oilfields in Eastern Siberia with the Pacific Ocean, is central to Russia's plans to expand exports to China, Japan and South Korea. It would span more than 4,100 kilometers, cost more than $11.5 billion and have a shipping capacity of 80 million tons of crude per year.

It was unclear what prompted Putin's apparent change of heart.

Protests against Transneft's chosen route have been held across the country, most recently last weekend.

Peter Westin, MDM Bank's chief economist, said the public would like Putin's move, calling it "good political strategy."

Last July, Putin took aim at ecologists who, he said, were trying to derail a project with huge economic implications.

"As soon as we start doing something, one of the arguments in the attacks against us is always environmental problems," Putin said at the time.

At Wednesday's meeting, during a discussion of problems facing Siberia, Putin raised the issue of the Far East pipeline. After Vainshtok defended the route and Transneft's ability to shield Baikal from any danger, Putin suggested hearing what the experts had to say.

Leading geologist Nikolai Lavyorov, vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, stood up. Pointing to a map of Baikal's basin, he said that rerouting the pipeline at least 40 kilometers from the lake's shoreline would ensure that if there were an accident, pollutants would head north, away from the lake.

Then Putin suddenly stepped forward and, using a marker pen to indicate the spot on the map, declared: "The route will go to the north of the area pointed to by academician Lavyorov. Let's consider it a done deal."

Vainshtok, who appeared in a state of shock, said he was taken aback by Putin's decision but that "I am a soldier, and the president is the commander in chief. Orders are not discussed."

He added: "The position of the president is that even though we have a high level of technology, if there is the slightest chance of danger, then ecological safety must come first."

Zorikto Dagbayev / Itar-Tass

Lake Baikal is the world's oldest and deepest lake, and it contains 20 percent of the Earth's unfrozen fresh water.

Vainshtok also said he could not immediately estimate how the route change would affect the project's cost or length.

Transneft vice president Sergei Grigoryev said the state enterprise would need up to 1 1/2 months to redesign the section of the pipeline that would run near Baikal.

"It's easy for those scientists to draw things on the map," Grigoryev said. "We actually have to walk the entire route."

Grigoryev said the final path of the pipeline was unlikely to be any of the three originally mapped out by Transneft and government officials.

"But, yes, we are to go beyond the watershed line," Grigoryev said. "If the head of state says so, we will do it."

Environmentalists, meanwhile, could barely contain their glee.

"It is an absolutely right and a long-awaited decision," said Igor Chestin, head of WWF Russia, an environmental group. "And we should not forget that as a result there are no losers in this.

"Transneft was effectively left on its own, left to pursue its commercial interests. Other issues were simply ignored."

Agreeing with Lavyorov, Chestin said that pushing the pipeline 40 kilometers north would protect Baikal by reducing the risk of the pipeline suffering an earthquake-induced rupture.

Last year, Greenpeace activists along with officials from the Natural Resources Ministry caught a Transneft subcontractor illegally logging along the route closest to Baikal as the company conducted a geological survey of the route. The route had not been approved, and the work was seen as an indication of Transneft's intentions.

Baikal, which contains 20 percent of the Earth's fresh water, sits on a continental rift that widens by about 2 centimeters each year. The area is prone to seismic disturbances that environmentalists worried would trigger a natural disaster if the pipeline ripped open near the lake.

Greenpeace also welcomed Putin's comments. "We totally welcome this decision and consider it a sign that the leadership is willing to listen to people's concerns," said Greenpeace's Moscow spokesman, Yevgeny Usov.

Under law, the president is not supposed to make decisions about the technical details of oil pipelines.

But no Transneft officials Wednesday questioned Putin's authority to interfere in the pipeline route. Asked why Putin intervened, Grigoryev said, "This is a question about the state we live in and the way things run here."

Roland Nash, chief strategist at Renaissance Capital investment bank, pointed out that Putin's decision to shift the route came at a time when the country was awash in petrodollars and capable of incurring the additional expense.

"It is nice to see that Russia can also afford these kinds of political and environmental gestures," he said.

Staff Writer Valeria Korchagina contriubuted to this report from Moscow.

Three routes have been proposed, but after Putin's decision, the final path around Baikal must still be determined.