Russian Oil Spill : Desolation of the Dream of ‘Sustainable Ocean’

Ujjawal Vaibhav Agrahari*


President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency after spilling 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into a river in the Arctic Circle. The oil travelled from the fuel site, some 7.5 miles, making the Ambarnaya River bright red and contaminating a total area of 135 square miles. “The accident has contributed to disastrous results and we will see the implications for years to come,” said Sergey Verkhovets, WWF Russia’s leader of Arctic programs, in a statement quoted by CNN, “We’re worried about rotting birds, infected bird plumage, and tainted livestock.”The Ambarnaya channel is part of a network that runs through the highly fragile Arctic Ocean, into which the oil has been poured.

Boom barriers, which are portable floating barriers used to prevent underwater pollution, were installed in the river but due to deeper waters, they did not hold the crude. The announced state of emergency will put in new powers and federal support in the coming days for clean-up operations as reported by government leaders.

The leak can have a significant effect on local ecology as the Ambarnaya river flows into the Pyasino lake and the Pyasina river which connects it to the Arctic Ocean’s Kara Sea. This leakage will lead to thin oil layering on the ocean surface, which is dangerous for aquatic life. The area is abundant in whales, dolphins, sea otters, and sea birds, and in the field, fishing is almost difficult. WWF defined this as the second greatest confirmed oil spill in the history of modern Russia in terms of quantity without measuring the ozone impact related to greenhouse gases and soil emissions.

Scrutiny of Laws in Russia

After the devastating oil spill in Southern Russia’s Kerchensky Strait in 2007, WWF-Russia has collaborated with the Russian authorities on a regulation. WWF-Russia, the Ministry of Natural Resources and a specialist State Duma Commission collaborated to redraw the original draft regulations into a comprehensive oil emissions safety legislation.

The current legislation specifies guidelines for hydrocarbon exploration and shipping and allows operating firms to assume more accountability for avoiding oil spills. Laws are not so rigid; therefore, more stable legislation is need for an hour.

Reasons for the Imposition of Liability and the Discrepancies

The blatant harm to the environment cannot be enumerated through iterating a single facet, but can be the outcome of multiple adverse environmental facets such as damage induced by pollution, depletion, decay, loss or Excessive utilization of renewable resources, destruction and disturbance of ecological ecosystems, environments, and landscapes or other abuses of environmental.[1] The human intervention is the underlying reason in most of the cases of harm to nature. Gross violation of rules is the impediment to sustainable environment.

Oil companies find it lucrative to fill holes and dump the sand on spills with low-cost penalties. They poorly oversight and do almost anything but spend on quality services and systematic clean-ups. Backed by corporate law principles of separate legal identities and limited liability, and the resulting reluctance by the courts to lift the corporate curtain, firms are in a position to protect themselves from blame for their subsidiaries’ adverse conduct.

Even when regulatory laws remain enforced, still the damages prompted by the firms usually do not result in lawsuits. Legitimate harm is rendered to the atmosphere and the law enforcement officers are maligned through petty sums and therefore, the business goes on.

An Overview of Liabilities Subsequent to Oil Spill

The State’s Liability

The State may be kept responsible for transborder harm in the case of infringement by the State of the responsibilities specified by international treaties and in the absenteeism of breaches by the State of the terms mentioned in the international treaties for damage caused via lawful acts. Given the reality that certain foreign law rules are declarative, a State may be found responsible based on international legal practice. There is already a presumption of responsibility for transborder harm caused by the community by the state under customary foreign law.

Liability of Legal Entities Under International Treaties

International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage 1969 (modified in Protocol of 1992): The Convention shall account for losses incurred by contaminating the territory of a nation who is a party to the Convention, including its territorial sea and even the properties of its exclusive economic zone. The Convention applies to pollution from imports of crude in bulk (oil and finished products).

An Insight into International Laws and Baffled Responsibilities

Stockholm Declaration

The Declaration on the Human Environment was introduced at the UN Human Environment Conference (UNCHE) convened in Sweden in June 1972. All records include specific provisions about aquatic emissions.[2]Principle 7 of the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, 1972, emphasized on the protection and initiation of measures to protect from contamination of hazardous substances.

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme highlighted the vast gaps that persisted between the laws and its implementation[3]. The steps taken were under sourced, were poorly coordinated and faulty methods were adopted.

Global Conventions on the Law of the Sea

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea adopted in 1982 is another comprehensive document on the various aspects of ocean affairs, including marine environmental protection. It particularly includes the clause “on the security of the ocean from oil emissions by oil pipelines or through the construction of continental shelves”.

Though it had provision for the protection of ocean from oil spills, its provisions were dependant on other laws which proved to be chaos.

International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil (OILPOL)

International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil(OILPOL)-was introduced on 12 May 1954. The convention was the first foreign oil emission treaty. This dealt with oil and sticky waste discharging into the sea. OILPOL54 restricted the deliberate dumping of oil and oily mixtures from such boats in different ocean regions.

Though it was major legislation of that time, compliance with OILPOL 54 was difficult and enforcement was poor. This was modified by the early 1960s but these amendments did not significantly improve compliance.[4]

International Maritime Organisation (IMO)

On 18 March 1967, the vessel’s total load-120 000 tons of fuel oil-was leaked in the English Channel. Countries soon realized that the coastlines were at risk of a significant oil leak.[5]As a further result of this event, the International Maritime Organisation was introduced on 29 November 1969 the Universal Agreement on High Seas Interference in cases of oil contamination in Brussels.

Despite being a big organization, IMO failed at several instances in delivering its duty in the fear of loss of support from big allies like the US and EU. Also, at various instances the directives by IMO were turned down by these allies[6].


The extraction of offshore oil in the Arctic is in its infancy, with production taking place in Russia and Norway at a great scale. As development levels and extraction is set to grow in the coming years, the chances of a large-scale oil spill in Arctic waters will increase. The difficult working environments, lack of facilities, and ineffective clean-up methods under Arctic conditions intensify the need for rigorous regulation of the region’s petroleum activities. Although international conventions enforce legal commitments to participate in response activities, there is a loophole in controlling such oil spill prevention. There is a growing role of non-binding regulation, or soft law, with the Arctic Council taking the lead. And the amount of the charge would be calculated by the scale of the waste management impacts and set tariffs.

The robust regulatory framework is the current requirement for offshore safety,especially in the Arctic region. It is the International Maritime Organisation’s agenda that regulates the prevention and response measures for oil spills. Also, the growing role of soft law governance should be encouraged because the norms and standards are getting evolved and need to involve a greater number of non-stakeholders. The massive oil spill of Russia is due to negligence and noncompliance with existing laws. Had there been stringent laws this situation could not have risen. Therefore, robust laws are required so as to prevent the occurrence of such accidents.

About the Author

*Ujjawal Vaibhav Agrahari is a second year student at National Law University Odisha, Cuttack.

[1]Federal Law on Protection of Environment Protection No- 7-FZ§ 77,cl. 1

[2]Damilola S. Olawuyi, Legal and Sustainable Development Impacts of Major Oil Spills, Columbia University,Consilience, 2013, No. 9 (2013)

[3]13 Arthur H.Westing, From Environmental to Comprehensive Security, 11 (SpringerBriefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice 2013)

[4]Hall, Emily C., and Bryan J. O’Neill, Pollution on the high seas: from jurisdiction to enforcement and all of the moving parts in between, Gale Academic One File(July 3, 2020, 4:11 PM),

[5]International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil 1954(as amended in 1962 and 1969) § 1

[6]Björn Hassler, Discussion, Oil Spills from Shipping: A Case Study of the Governance of Accidental Hazards and Intentional Pollution in the Baltic Sea, Springer Link (July 5, 2020, 1:36 PM),

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