VILNIUS - After months of delay, a team of experts from UNESCO finally arrived to evaluate potential environmental damage to the Curonian Spit that may result from exploitation of Lukoil's D-6 oil field.
The group of scientists met with President Rolandas Paksas on Nov. 3 to discuss Lithuania's national interests in relation to the issue before traveling to the spit itself.
UNESCO issued two resolutions over the summer mandating inspections of the site, which is included on the organization's list of World Heritage Sites.
Earlier plans to visit the spit were delayed by assertions from the Russian government that it would not allow any international group access to the spot where drilling will take place, a point in Russian waters 22 kilometers from the spit and seven kilometers south of the Russian-Lithuanian maritime border.
The announcement by Russia's Lukoil earlier this year that it would begin extracting petroleum from the offshore field was met with protest from Lithuanian environmentalists, who fear that mishaps may cause irreversible damage to the ecologically sensitive area.
According to the president's office and the Foreign Ministry, the team assured Lithuanian officials that it would ascertain the specifics of Lukoil's plans for extraction and contingency plans in case of an accident. The experts furthermore told the president they would seek to establish an information-sharing channel between the oil company and regional governments that would continue for the life of the project, which is expected to last 20 - 30 years.
The UNESCO representatives planned to meet with Russian government officials later in the week.
In spite of assurances from the group, Lithuanian activists claim that the window of opportunity to affect true change has already closed.
"Theoretically, it is possible that the plans to drill could still be stopped. But practically speaking, it is now impossible," said Linas Vainius of the Lithuanian Green Movement.
Vainius, who also met with the UNESCO team, reported that while talks were productive, they amounted to more bark than bite.
"Unfortunately, they have the authority to do very little, and their decisions are not binding. Only the government can issue binding decisions, and they [Lithuanian officials] have begun to pay attention to the situation too late," he said.
Nonetheless, the visit marks a reversal in the Russian government's former intransigence on the issue, as it has granted the team free access to D-6 and surrounding areas. The softening of policy also follows up on Moscow's October decision to release the results of an environmental impact study it conducted this spring to the Lithuanian government, a gesture that contradicted earlier claims that it was under no obligation to do so.
From Vainius' perspective, however, Vilnius continues not to exercise the amount of leverage it could.
"Many in the government have said that Lithuania, as a small state, cannot confront the drilling. The fact is that it can find ways to use pressure, but it hasn't tried much," he said.
Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas discussed the concerns surrounding the D-6 project with former President Valdas Adamkus, who was recently invited to join the Madrid Club, a group of retired heads of state who lobby for global democratic reform.
Lithuanian environmentalists and the Greens have continued to express concerns about the D-6 project due to its proximity to the Curonian Spit, which was listed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001.