Russian oil restrictions could be threat to environment in Gulf of Finland

Russian oil tanker.
Russian oil tanker. Source: SCANPIX / EPA

Restrictions on Russian oil exports could lead to an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Finland, according to the chief of the Finnish Border Guard. A professor at the University of Helsinki even fears a deliberate oil spill in the gulf, according to Finnish public broadcaster Yle in a report quoting information from national news agency STT.

"We don't have any concrete evidence to back up our claims, but according to our estimates the profile of cargo ships transiting the Gulf of Finland has changed. There has been a shift from vessels belonging to Western shipping companies, to other vessels," Tuomas Luukkonen, commander of the Finnish Border Guard for the Gulf of Finland region, told Finnish news agency STT.

Luukkonen said, that the Finnish Border Guard, which also plays an important in protecting the environment, had intensified its monitoring of shipping traffic in the Gulf of Finland since February last year, when Russia began its full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. While during the early months of the war, there was a decrease in shipping traffic going to and from Russian ports, by the summer traffic in the Gulf of Finland had returned to pre-war levels, Luukkonen said.

"Every week, 60-80 oil tankers pass through the Gulf of Finland, along with 150 additional cargo ships," he said.

Importance of oil exports for Russia has increased

Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, professor of Russian environmental studies at the University of Helsinki, stressed to STT, that oil exports have become even more important for Russia since the beginning of the war. As a result, so have Russia's ports in the Gulf of Finland.

"The prospects for Russian gas exports in the near future are rather bleak, as the Nord Stream gas pipelines (in the Baltic Sea) have been blown up and European countries have cut gas imports from Russia. Exporting oil has therefore become even more important, as it can be transported out by tanker," the professor said. He pointed in particular to the increase in Russian oil exports to India.

According to Tynkkynen, up to half of Russia's national revenue before the war came from oil and gas exports, and at times, a third of this was from oil alone.

As a result, Western restrictions on Russian crude oil exports deprive the country of around $160 million( USD) per day, with newly agreed price caps on refined oil products expected to cut Russia's revenue even further.

The restrictions work by banning companies, mainly in Western countries, from insuring vessels or offering credit to firms, which transport Russian oil for more than the price cap amount, which is currently $60 (USD) a barrel.

Russia has recruited a reserve fleet

STT highlighted, that towards the end of last year, several major media outlets had reported that Russia was building up its own shadow fleet of tankers as a means of circumventing the sanctions imposed by Western countries.

As Russia does not possess enough oil tankers of its own, it is forced to use vessels operated by companies from countries, which are not under economic sanctions. However, these vessels are often in poor condition and toward the end of their lifespan. Their ability to navigate through frozen winter seas is also a potential cause for concern.

"With the current price of Russian crude oil below the $60 (USD) a barrel price cap, Russia could hire Greek tankers insured by British companies. But if the price were to rise, Russia would run into difficulties and may start using tankers that were already worthless before February last year," Tynkkynen said.

Not only are many of these tankers in poor condition, but nor are they ice-class vessels, with reinforced hulls, which help ensure they can withstand difficult icy sea conditions, Luukkonen added. However, all the tankers currently seen in the Gulf of Finland so far have had reinforced hulls, which should be sufficient to ensure safety even in the event of an accident and is a prerequisite for navigation in the gulf.

Crews have changed

Luukkonen also said, that the Gulf of Finland is relatively shallow and narrow, and therefore shipping traffic is very intense there, even by world standards. This, combined with the winter conditions, places additional demands on crews, he added.

"This increases the risk of an accident if a crew does not know how to navigate here. We estimate that some of these vessels now have crews, who have never sailed here before," said Luukkonen.

Professor: Russia may deliberately cause an accident

Professor Tynkkynen, who is an expert in Russian environmental policy, said there was no doubt that the use of a reserve fleet would increase the risk of environmental damage in the Gulf of Finland.

Asked whether Russia cares about the environment, Tynkkynen replied, that it used to, but now the situation has completely changed.

He even went so far as to suggest the possibility of a deliberate oil spill being caused in the region, and referred to the explosion of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in November in the Baltic Sea. While Russia has been accused of causing the explosion, so far its involvement has not been proven.

"It is obvious that Russia blew up these pipes. And, if Putin is backed into a corner, we could see all sorts of problems developing, even deliberately orchestrated oil spills," the professor said. "I can imagine Russian propaganda announcing that they have (been forced) to use ships, which are in such bad condition, because Europe doesn't care about environmental regulations. Then it would be (presented as) Europe's fault if an accident were to happen," Tynkkynen said.


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Editor: Michael Cole

Source: Yle

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