Gazprom has landed several other licenses to build exploratory drilling wells and platforms in a half dozen other Russian Arctic seas.
Last year, Rosneft was named Russia’s worst environmental polluter by the regional paper Bellona after a government report found that the company had 2,727 reported spills in 2011 in a single northwestern province.
In an interview with InsideClimate News, Vladimir Antoshchenko, a Gazprom Neft Shelf spokesperson, said the Prirazlomnoye project was "based on strict demands on environmental and industrial safety." He said the rig has Arctic-specific ice-crushing machines to blast floating icebergs and special boats to safely navigate the icy waters.
Alexey Knizhnikov, an environmental policy officer based in the Moscow office of the World Wildlife Fund, said he "has not seen any effective technology to combat an oil spill in ice conditions."
Either way, environmentalists and other critics of Russia's Arctic energy plans say there are deeper reasons why the country's oil industry isn't ready for Arctic drilling.
It wasn't until the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that substantial environmental regulations for energy companies were introduced in Russia. The end of Communism brought the establishment of environmental advocacy in the country, which, among other factors, led to the roll out of more and better rules, such as financial penalties for oil spills, but they're not enough.
For decades the government has been harshly criticized for concealing petroleum spills from the public and the media, levying meager fines that hardly discourage violators, and for failing to require companies to have adequate emergency response plans and spill response tools, among other criticisms.
Valentina Semyashkina, former chair of the Save the Pechora Committee, an environmental organization that works in the Arctic Komi Republic told InsideClimate News that "concealment of accidental oil spills" by energy companies is a regular occurrence. So is the government’s "turning a blind eye," she said.
The Komi Republic, a province the size of Germany with a largely indigenous population, has been on the frontlines of Russia's oil rush for years. Accidents have been prevalent, including a vast spill of as much as 2 million barrels from a corroded pipeline in 1994. The incident was first made public by a U.S. Department of Energy official who revealed the spill to the New York Times, prompting accusations of a Russian government cover-up.
"The power is always on the side of big businesses and never on the side of the citizens," Semyashkina said.
She pointed to a recent oil spill in the Komi Republic. In late May this year, a local Komi resident on his way to work spotted a big blob of black gooey oil in the area's Kolva River from a pipeline that tore apart in the early winter months. The pipeline's operator, the Russian- and Vietnamese-owned company Rusvietpetro, had detected the rupture in November but nothing happened.
More than a dozen community members ran the cleanup, shoveling oil into barrels and putting them on the shore before the government emergency response officials arrived and took over about a week later. By late June, Rusvietpetro had repaired the line, which it said broke due to a drop in pressure in the line. The government response ended on July 25, after 3,500 barrels of oil spilled out.
The oil is still threatening the fish and cows that the local indigenous Komi people depend on to earn their living, according to Semyashkina. And several residents are still cleaning up the mess without compensation.
Rusvietpetro didn't respond to requests for comment.
Local authorities say some of the oil and oil products have reached the Pechora River, a tributary of the Arctic Ocean, as is typical following spills in the Russian tundra, the country's biggest oil-producing area, Greenpeace's Chuprov said.
About 13 percent of the planet's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas lie under Arctic land and water, most of it offshore, according to projections.
One-third of that oil and more than half of the gas is buried on and off Russia's coastline. And for the first time, the trove of energy is accessible to drilling, a result of both global warming—which has turned the northern ice cap into mush in the summer months—and advanced drilling technology.