Analysis: Explosion in Moscow bad PR for Gazprom

By JOHN C.K. DALY, UPI International Correspondent

Published: May 11, 2009 at 8:09 PM

WASHINGTON, May 11 (UPI) — While it is difficult to work up much sympathy at the best of times for energy companies’ public relations flacks, those representing Russia’s state company Gazprom have had a bad few weeks. Recent explosions on pipelines to Moldova and Turkmenistan generated strained relations with the two nations, but the incidents were dwarfed by a massive explosion on a natural gas line in southwest Moscow early Sunday morning. What all three incidents have in common is revealing an issue that Gazprom would much rather keep quiet — the increasingly decrepit state of its pipeline infrastructure, most of it dating from the Soviet era.

At 20 minutes past midnight on Sunday morning, residents on Ozernaya Street, close to the Moscow Circular Road in the southwest of the city, were rocked from their beds when a gas main ruptured.Eyewitnesses heard a sound like a jetliner taking off; within seconds, the escaping gas ignited, sending a column of flame more than 650 feet into the air. For comparison purposes, the Washington Monument is 555 feet high. After saying he initially thought a plane had crashed, one observer posting his comments on Facebook remarked from the scene, “Where I am is light as day and as warm as Africa.”

Moscow authorities dispatched 50 firefighting brigades to combat the inferno. The first respondents who arrived at the scene early Sunday couldn’t get within 1,000 feet of the ruptured pipeline because of the intense heat generated by the blaze.

The conflagration melted asphalt, consumed around 70 cars that were parked nearby and partly destroyed the nearby All-Russian Scientific Research Institute for Optical and Physical Measurements. Moscow’s Municipal Telecommunication Firm reported that 80,000 customers lost their phone connection after underground telephone cables were damaged by the heat. The only fortunate news was that Mayor Yury Luzhkov reported that only five people were hospitalized with burns, none with serious injuries. Speaking about the casualties, Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Alexander Chupriyan said, “All of them are drivers, who happened to pass by the pipeline at the moment the fire broke out.”

The mayor was also at pains to dismiss the possibility of terrorism, telling reporters, “We have to wait for the official investigation, but I am 99 percent sure this catastrophe was caused by a technical problem.”

Those with slightly longer memories might note that May 9, celebrated in Russia as Victory Day over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, known as World War II to the rest of the world, has a darker remembrance. Five years ago to the day, Chechen militants assassinated Akhmad Abdulkhamidovich Kadyrov, Moscow’s appointed president of Chechnya, during a Victory Day celebration in the ruined Chechen capital Grozny.

Perhaps it is memories of that coincidental darker anniversary five years ago that led to Itar-Tass quoting Anatoly Bagmet, the Moscow department head of the Prosecutor General’s Office Investigation Committee, as saying, “The gas pipeline fire is being investigated. A criminal case may be opened on the investigation results,” while RIA Novosti reported that Russian Interior Ministry bomb experts and colleagues from the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB, have begun inquiries into the cause of what Deputy Mayor Pyotr Biryukov labeled the largest fire in Moscow since the war.

Luzhkov’s assessment of the cause of the conflagration will probably be borne out by the forensic examination. While Chechen terrorist attacks in Moscow were a hallmark of their struggle against Russian dominance, the reality is that in the last several years, Putin’s harsh methods have largely pacified the restive Caucasian province, as evidenced by the fact that Akhmad Kadyrov‘s son Ramzan is now president there. But if Muscovites can sleep a bit more soundly because of the capital’s security measures, then the country’s natural gas industry’s dolorous safety record remains cause for concern, a problem that stretches back decades.

Twenty years ago, a leaking natural gas pipeline caused the most deadly railway accident in Soviet history. On June 4, 1989, two Trans-Siberian Railway passenger trains passing each other near the cities of Ufa and Asha apparently threw off sparks that ignited vapor leaking from a natural gas pipeline, producing an explosion estimated to be equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT, two-thirds as powerful as the Hiroshima explosion. The inferno killed 575 and wounded more than 600, but tragically, three hours before the tragedy, engineers noticed a drop in the pressure in the gas line. Instead of checking for leaks, they ramped up the pressure back to normal.

Shortly after the incident, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev visited the scene of the tragedy and subsequently told the Congress of People’s Deputies, “It seems once again that it is a matter of incompetence, irresponsibility, mismanagement.”

Gazprom, the world’s largest oil and gas company, controls 93,205 miles of pipelines. Last October, during an interview with the NTV television broadcaster, Gazprom Chief Executive Officer Alexei Miller predicted that his company would generate more than $35 billion in net profit by the year’s end. If Miller doesn’t want to end up alongside former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky in YaG-14/10 penal colony near the town of Krasnokamensk in Chita province in eastern Siberia, 3,000 miles east of Moscow, on charges of “incompetence, irresponsibility, mismanagement,” then he might consider dipping into his $35 billion rainy day fund to maintain those 93,205 miles of pipelines, as explosions in Moscow are at the very least negative PR.

Moscow authorities have said the 54th Eurovision Song Contest, which is scheduled for May 16 in Moscow not far from the scene of the fire and will draw an estimated audience of 100 million viewers, will not be affected. If Miller doesn’t want to wind up alongside Khodorkovsky sewing protective clothing for the prison system and the police, then he has his work cut out for him.

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