Tasmania awaits the homecoming of Colin Russell, 59, one of the 30 Arctic activists detained and freed by Russian authorities.

The Russian Parliament passed amnesty laws before Christmas absolving a range of minor felons, including 30 Greenpeace activists known as the Arctic 30. As New Year draws near, the immigration department  also ordered the issue of exit visas so that former detainees can go home.

Colin Russell is free at last and is expected to be home in Tasmania for the New Year. (Photo: AAP)

Twenty-eight Greenpeace protestors representing 18 nationalites — Americans, Canadians  Britons and Australians, to name a few — and two freelance journalists were seized at the Prirazlomnoye platform on September 18 by Russian commandos. They boarded the Arctic Sunrise to protest against drilling in the ice capped region, but were intercepted, captured, and charged with piracy, which was then reduced to hooliganism.  If convicted, they could have been locked up for at least seven years

The pardon came at a time when Russia’s first Arctic offshore field Prirazlomnoye started pumping oil in the remote waters of the Pechora Sea. Gazprom Neft announced on December 20 that oil production had begun with an average of 10.6 million barrels of oil per day, close to its current capacity. Gazprom expected an initial production of 12,000 barrels per day in 2014 and the first tanker is likely to be loaded with oil in the first quarter of next year.

Already an owner of the world’s largest natural gas reserves and a growing presence in the oil sector, Gazprom also aims to produce six million tons of crude oil per year (120,000 barrels per day) at the site by 2021.

The Arctic 30 in St. Petersburg awaiting trial on charges of hooliganism.

Prirazlomnoye’s estimated oil reserves stand at 72 million tons — a small field that would be responsible for just one percent of Russia’s daily production and be depleted in about two decades, Reuters reported.

Prirazlomnoye’s deposit is Russia’s first Arctic offshore exploration project, which marks the start of establishing a large hydrocarbon hub in the region. The Prirazlomnoye oil deposit lies 60 km offshore in the Pechora Sea. The announcement also marks Russia’s long-planned effort to turn the vast oil and natural gas riches believed to be buried in the frozen waters into profits for its ambitious government-run firms. Gazprom also stressed it has rights to 29 other fields it planned to exploit in Russia’s section of the Arctic seabed.

But both Gazprom and the Kremlin view the field as a stepping stone in a much broader effort to turn the Arctic into the focus of future exploration that makes up for Russia’s declining oil production at its Soviet-era Siberian fields, according to AFP.

The Arctic region is seen as an important source of potential growth for Russia, the world’s largest oil producer, in the next decade, with global oil majors including ExxonMobil, Eni and Statoil clinching deals to enter the Russian Arctic. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the Arctic offshore riches as strategically important for the country.

Control over energy fields in Russia’s section of the Arctic is split between Gazprom and its state-owned rival Rosneft — an oil producer that wants to break Gazprom’s grip on the natural gas market. Rosneft is said to be partnering in the region with U.S. major ExxonMobil and has smaller deals signed with Italy’s ENI and Norway’s Statoil, theAFP report further added.

Gazprom sees overall investments into the project at about 200 billion rubles ($6 billion), of which half has already been spent with the bulk accounting for a special ice-proof platform.

Conservation groups react

Dima Litvinov, the first of the Arctic 30 to leave Russia for Finland said his freedom is not the end, but just a beginning.

Gazprom's Polarstar platform (Photo: Gazprom.ru)

“They (Gazprom) may have celebrated when our ship was seized, but our imprisonment has been a disaster for them. The movement to save the Arctic is marching now. Our freedom is the start of something, not the end. This is only the beginning. The oil companies are moving north, the world’s climate is changing, the biggest struggles still lie ahead of us.

Greenpeace said all efforts to protect the last frontier of pristine resources will be exerted and the fight is not yet over.  One of its campaign platforms to gather support is Save the Arctic.

Last year, the World Wildlife fund (WWF) released a joint report that seeks to find a solution in the event of an oil spill in the region. It said that harsh conditions in Russia’s Pechora Sea coupled with an inadequate oil spill response plan mean that Gazprom would not be able to properly respond to an oil spill in the Arctic.

A comprehensive study and joint report was released last year by the WWF, Greenpeace, Hydrometcentre of Russia, SOI, AA RI and SRC Risk Informatics. The title of the report was “Simulation of the behaviour of oil spill in the course of OIRFP “PRIRAZLOMNAYA” Operation Assessment of the possibility of emergency response related to oil spills.

The experts reviewed tens of thousands of possible scenarios and concluded that the area of possible contamination covers over 140,000 square kilometers of open water, as well as over 3,000 kilometers of coastline. The area at risk also includes three protected areas located 50-60 km from the Prirazlomnaya oil platform: the Nenetsky natural reserve, as well as two wildlife preserves, Vaigach and Nenetsky. These reserves are home to walruses and countless species of birds. Gazprom does not include any funds for animal rescue in its oil spill response plan.

Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya platform in the Arctic (Photo: Gazprom)

Gazprom’s Technology

Gazprom defended its Prirazlomnaya as a unique platform designed and built in Russia on Gazprom orders. In a press statement it said it uses technology designed to work in extreme conditions, conforms to the strictest safety requirements and is capable of withstanding maximum ice pressure. Specification of the materials used are comprehensively detailed to ensure Prirazlomnaya is oil-spill-free.