4. Fossil fuel infrastructure
Published: November, 2022 · Categories: Publications, Ukraine
This is the fourth in a series of thematic briefings on the environmental consequences of the armed conflict in Ukraine, jointly prepared by the Conflict and Environment Observatory and Zoï Environment Network. This work is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme as part of its efforts to monitor the environmental situation in Ukraine.
Ukraine has a high reliance on coal, gas and oil, and sites associated with their production, processing, transit or use continue to be key military and political objectives. Damage and disruption to such sites since February 2022 has left a legacy of environmental and public health risks and is increasingly exacerbating civilian suffering. The geopolitical manipulation of fossil energy in relation to the conflict has had global consequences whose reverberating effects on economies and the climate will last for years.
Overview and key themes
In common with most countries, Ukraine is highly dependent on fossil fuels, and production, processing, storage and transit sites have all been impacted by the conflict. Damage and disruption to such sites has short and long-term implications for the environment, as well as for the provision of basic humanitarian needs, such as water supply, heating, communication, transport and medical care. In addition to physical damage, socio-economic and geopolitical factors linked to the conflict have influenced fossil fuel production and consumption, both within and beyond Ukraine, with implications for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the global energy transition. Fossil fuels continue to play an outsize role in the conflict.
Ukraine’s fossil fuel infrastructure is not only diverse but substantial. It includes extensive coal mines and far more limited onshore and offshore oil and gas production sites, as well as one of the world’s densest networks of gas pipelines. The capacity of Ukraine’s seven oil refineries is greater than its annual oil production but far below its annual demand, as such it has historically been dependent on oil imports from Russia and Belarus. The country has numerous oil storage depots serving civilian, military and industrial needs, and 18 thermal power plants, the majority of which burn coal exclusively.
In spite of a slow and decade-long decline in their use, as of 2020 some 70.5% of Ukraine’s energy needs were still met by fossil fuels, of which gas provided 27.6%, coal and peat 26.4%, with crude oil and oil products comprising a further 16.5%. In terms of overall energy security, in 2020 Ukraine imported almost as much coal and half as much natural gas as it produced domestically. Domestic reliance on fossil fuels for generating electricity and heat, and on imports, has left it vulnerable to disruption linked to the conflict.
Elements of the country’s fossil fuel infrastructure have been affected by the conflict in different ways, in turn influencing how the environment has been affected. Equally, the pattern of attacks has also changed over the course of the conflict. In its first three months, oil storage sites in towns and cities and at military airbases were struck, together with civilian energy infrastructure. The autumn has seen a huge expansion in the number of energy sites targeted, including combined heat and power plants as well as transmission infrastructure.
In addition to static sites, there have been numerous attacks on military fuel convoys and rail fuel transportation. While these may contain smaller volumes of oil products, spills are direct to the environment, and not contained by the structures typically found at static storage sites. Alongside the direct forms of damage linked to the hostilities, there has also been nationwide disruption to sites and infrastructure as a result of the conditions created by the conflict, for example the consequences of power cuts, or loss of access for repairs.
To date dozens of sites storing, refining and producing oil have been deliberately targeted. This has included both civilian and military storage depots, as well as oil stored at industrial facilities and power plants. Oil production, refining and storage sites are typically targeted for military gain in conflicts because of the contribution fuels make to the military effort. While Russia has attacked the majority of oil storage depots, Ukraine has also targeted sites in the occupied east and on Russian territory. Methods employed include cruise missiles, artillery and sabotage. Fighting has also taken place at oil facilities, most notably at the Lysychansk Oil Refinery, which since June has been on the front line in the conflict.
Attacks on oil facilities often have immediate and long-term consequences not only for the environment but for public health as well. In the short-term, fires generate serious air pollution, with plumes depositing pollutants on surrounding areas.1 As Ukraine has many storage sites in and around urban areas there is a high potential to impact homes, gardens and allotments, as well as water courses and agricultural land. Along with the fires themselves, efforts to control them can also be a driver of pollution, whether through the use of toxic firefighting foams or through accelerating the dispersal of oil and combustion products through water runoff. In addition to the immediate human health risks of inhaling smoke, particularly for those with pre-existing respiratory problems, the long-term pollution of soils and water with heavy metals and hazardous compounds can contribute to persistent exposure risks for people and harm ecosystems.
Ukraine has historically been an important transit route for Russian gas to the EU, although its importance has been diminishing with the opening of pipelines across neighbouring countries. Since February, gas transport infrastructure has generally seen indirect impacts from the fighting, rather than deliberate targeting. This has included incidental physical damage to pipelines and pumping stations, as well as shutdowns from de-energisation. Ukraine’s minority of power plants such as Trypilska near Kyiv that use natural gas alongside coal have been targeted by Russia this autumn.
The local environmental consequences of incidents at gas transit infrastructure in Ukraine are relatively minimal, certainly in comparison to attacks on oil facilities. Nevertheless, the weaponisation of gas supplies in the context of the conflict has resulted in policies that have had ramifications for the global climate, including large-scale flaring, the sabotage of undersea pipelines and major shifts in domestic energy policies in the EU and elsewhere. Moreover, damage to gas transport infrastructure in Ukraine will have contributed to methane emissions.
The impact of the conflict on Ukraine’s extensive coalfields has been of concern since 2014. With the bulk of them located in the eastern Donbas region, many mines had already gone through forced closure or uncontrolled shutdown. For some this was the result of local fighting and damage, or the result of de-energisation due to persistent interruption of electricity supplies, for others, a conscious decision was made by the Ukrainian or de facto authorities. Closure has often meant the cessation of groundwater pumping, which leads to a range of environmental risks as mines fill with water and contaminants are mobilised. As a result, the Donbas faces a serious environmental legacy of widespread groundwater contamination and land surface deformation.
The situation for coal mines in the Donbas has worsened since February. Ecodozor has identified at least seven coal mines that have been affected by damage or disruption. Mine buildings have also been used as weapon storage areas, and subsequently targeted. Throughout the Donbas, spoil heaps from coal mines provide elevated strategic positions and, if targeted, may lead to an increase in fires and slope instability. Impacts from heavy weapons use can also lead to the remobilisation of mine pollutants from soils.
|Key incidents at selected fossil fuel facility types, Feb – Oct 2022|
|Oil depots throughout Ukraine.||Numerous depots attacked throughout the war, especially between February and March, resulting in major fires.|
|Kremenchuk and Lysychansk oil refineries.||Both facilities have been heavily damaged after frontlines moved across and around them; the Kremenchuk facility has been completely destroyed.|
|Kharkiv, Okhtyrka, Sloviansk, Vuhlehirska and Zaporizhzhia thermal power stations.||All five plants have been severely affected by the conflict between February and October. Okhtyrka sustained serious damage in March; Vuhlehirska was the scene of fighting prior to its capture by Russian forces in July; radioactive ash fires were reported at Zaporizhzhia in August; production at the Sloviansk and Zaporizhzhia plants was halted in May, the latter temporarily.|
|Carbonit, Hirska, Pivdennodonbas'ka, Surhaia Toshivka, and Zolote coal mines.||Power supplies cut, resulting in flooding at these previously operational mines.|
The Black Sea has extensive hydrocarbon deposits, and a Ukrainian oil and gas platform that was occupied by Russia as part of its 2014 annexation of Crimea has also been attacked. In June, Ukraine targeted the BK-1 and Modu Tavrida installations, which were operated by Chernomorneftegaz, a Ukrainian firm appropriated by Russia. The attacks caused oil spills, and a fire at the BK-1 platform, which at the time of writing continues to burn.
Beyond its serious environmental and humanitarian consequences, the conflict has had a particularly visible narrative around the state of fossil fuel insecurity in the EU and the wider geopolitical and security implications of fossil fuel dependency, which has been translating into market and policy responses in the EU. Taking place as it has at a time of increasing sensitivity to the climate crisis, the conflict has also encouraged long-overdue media attention on the impact of war on GHG emissions and the climate.
As part of its effort to calculate the financial cost of the war, the Ukrainian government is developing a methodology to calculate resulting GHG emissions, this was presented at COP27 in November 2022. Conflict-related emissions have been largely absent from previous climate summits, although the annexation of Crimea has seen efforts to use national GHG inventory reporting as a tool to legitimise occupation.
Damage and disruption to Ukraine’s fossil fuel infrastructure has already caused significant environmental harm and human suffering, and is ongoing. In particular, oil pollution and coal mine closures are creating a major legacy of pollution that will take years to address. The conflict has also demonstrated that a system of centralised energy generation that is dependent on fossil fuels is highly vulnerable to attack, or to economic or political manipulation.
Case study: Attack on the KLO oil storage depot, Kalynivka
Shortly before 6pm on 24th March 2022, a Kalibr cruise missile struck the KLO oil depot in Kalynivka, a town 30 km south-west of central Kyiv. The attack detonated fuel tanks and ignited a massive fire. In the short-term this created environmental health risks through air pollution, and in the longer-term has contaminated land and water, through the spillage and migration of fuel and firefighting waters. It is an example of how such incidents can have immediate and reverberating environmental consequences; this will be true not only for the other attacked fuel depots, but also much of the damaged infrastructure across Ukraine.
Immediate environmental consequences
The massive explosions and fire at the oil depot were said to be visible up to 20 km away, and footage of fireballs and thick smoke plumes was widely shared on social media. Although the event happened at night, it was still visible from space, with the inferno brighter than central Kyiv.
A significant fire continued well into the following day, with daylight illuminating the scale of the black smoke plume. This was illustrated by video footage on social media, a catalogue of spectacular press photos, and from satellite imagery. A very high resolution image was captured of the fire, showing the fuel tanks visibly ablaze, plume rising, fuel and firefighting liquids spilling onto agricultural land, and the damage to a neighbouring fish processing factory. Low resolution satellite images showed the plume visible up to 35 km downwind.2 Indeed satellite data shows the fire persisting into the 26th March,3 whilst local media reporting on 27th March suggests that fuel underground was still burning three days later.
Subsequent visits by experts at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy found that almost all the fuel at the site was burnt, with fire engulfing 12 tanks for storing petrol, 10 tanks of diesel, nine tanker trucks and four semi-trailers storing petroleum products. In total, it is likely that more than 10,000 tonnes of fuel products were burned – around 30,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (mt CO2e).
However, carbon is not the emission of most concern from an environmental health perspective. Although no direct measurements of the plume composition were possible, past incidents suggest that there will have been very high concentrations of: particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), nitrous acid (HONO), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, carbon disulphide (C2S), dioxins, furans, hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).4 The particulate matter may have been composed of up to 50% black carbon, an incredibly high proportion of this very unhealthy and climate relevant aerosol.
Exposure to this air pollution would have been much more severe if the incident had occurred during the day, or in summertime. The fire occurred at night and in wintertime and so the boundary layer was thin;5 hence it is likely that the very energetic smoke plume punched through it and dispersed the majority of pollutants into the free troposphere. However, some smoke was still dispersed near the ground, in particular from the more smouldering parts of the fire, and still caused a deterioration in local air quality. Furthermore, when the fire was burning during the following daytime, it was less energetic and the boundary layer was deeper, and so pollution was dispersed and deposited more locally; rudimentary modelling suggests over a relatively wide area.6 Indeed, it is likely that the smoke plume was responsible for peaks in PM2.5 concentrations at Khlepcha air quality monitoring station, 6 km to the south west. The dispersion modelling of the plume also indicates that it would have passed over the measurement site in the early morning.
Fortunately, there were no direct casualties – though the blasts did cause human suffering and fear – but only by a fine margin; a train transporting displaced people was passing on the adjacent rail line at the time of the strike.
On the night prior to this incident there was a large fire at a fish processing plant just 250 m away from the fuel tanks. Presumably the fuel depot had been the intended target. The fish plant burned for more than 12 hours and was visible from space the following morning. It required a significant firefighting presence, which will have caused additional contamination of the surrounding environment.
Reverberating environmental consequences
Site visits by experts at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in September 2022 indicate that the incident has had lasting environmental consequences. Here, we couple their work with very high resolution satellite imagery to illustrate these problems.
In the imagery we see that the concrete envelope for the fuel tanks remains blackened from soot, with the shells of some tanks remaining. Damage is visible to the firefighting pond and pipeline facilities, and a potential breach of the concrete bund in the north-west corner. The site visit found that the hardstanding was thermally damaged and a pervasive smell of burning remained. The area of blackened soil, contaminated with burnt petroleum and firefighting waters, remains clearly visible in a partly harvested field of sunflowers – this may be a food safety issue given the ability of sunflowers to bioaccumulate heavy metals.
There are several water bodies close to the fuel depot and one is showing visible signs of deterioration, likely owing to the attack. The “Riznytsia” pond sits 60 m north of the site and acted as a fish nursery and important cultural site for residents of the adjacent Kozhuhivka village. Since February, the water level has been dropping – unlike nearby water bodies. The site visit in September found clear evidence of oil pollution in the water and along the shore, including decomposed fish, and a perceptible smell of petroleum products. Locals said that the oil first appeared in June; press photos show the lake as unpolluted at the time of the fire.
The working assumption is that oil products and firefighting waters have migrated through soil or groundwater to the pond – flow is expected in this direction due to the relief and agricultural drainage system. The pond is the second in a cascade of water bodies that eventually reach the River Irpin. At the time of writing the link between the pond and the preceding lake is dried out, at least on the surface, but if rewetted may act to transport contaminants to new locations.
Measurements have been taken by government agencies to characterise the magnitude of the contamination. Water sampling by the State Agency for Water Resources in July 2022 indicate that levels of oil products in the “Riznytsia” pond are more 40 times higher than state standards – 12.3 mg/dm3 compared to 0.1-0.3 mg/dm3. Soil sampling by the State Environmental Inspectorate in April 2022 indicated that concentrations of oil products in the soil were up to 60 times higher than background levels, and 16 times higher than national standards.7 At these concentrations the soil is severely damaged physically, chemically and biologically. These measurements and site assessments will help inform what the most appropriate remedial action or actions are.
Lessons for reconstruction
An ideal green recovery programme that prioritised electrification and the energy transition would mean less demand for fuel storage sites in future. However, given existing fossil fuel dependencies in Ukraine and the imperfect nature of post-conflict recovery, it seems likely that damaged storage capacity will be replaced. It is therefore important that rebuilding is done in an environmentally sensitive manner. In this, Kalynivka provides a cautionary example.
The site of the 24th March attack was a relatively new installation, having been completed in 2016. This was following a disaster at the old oil depot, 4 km to the west, where on 8th June 2015 there was a fire large enough to receive international attention. Indeed, some of the media coverage of the 2022 attack used imagery from the 2015 disaster.8 Interestingly, the response, which was undertaken in a non-conflict context, resulted in evacuations, rapid environmental sampling, and the involvement of local environmental civil society – in contrast to 2022.
Following the 2015 disaster, this new oil depot was built in a more environmentally risky location – it was closer to housing, water courses and agricultural land. Google reviews of the site suggest this was deeply unpopular with local people, who were concerned at the proximity of the new oil depot and a repeat of the negligence that led to the disaster. Ultimately their fears were realised. If oil depots are to be rebuilt, then they should be situated in safe locations – away from densely populated areas and ecologically sensitive sites.
Immediate and future needs
Damage and disruption to fossil fuel infrastructure as a result of the conflict is creating environmental and public health risks, and worsening civilian suffering. Russia’s targeting policies, and Ukraine’s fossil fuel dependency and extensive infrastructure make further incidents inevitable. Measures to minimise harm to people and ecosystems should be undertaken, together with actions to address the damage already caused and wider questions of fossil fuel insecurity. These measures should include:
i) Minimise attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure
Conflict parties must recognise that energy generating and transmission infrastructure is vital for the wellbeing of the civilian population and avoid damage to it. More broadly, greater weight should be given to the environment when considering the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack. In many cases, attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure carry foreseeable and lasting consequences for the environment, and human health, which may be exacerbated by the reduced capacity of authorities to respond to them.
ii) Ensure harms are documented and understood
Where damage occurs to fossil fuel infrastructure, remote and field assessments should be undertaken as rapidly as possible to prevent further harm to the environment. Efforts should be made to assess potential harms to human health, the local environment and to the climate, and capacity should be made available for early response and containment measures, where required.
iii) Develop plans for long-term remediation
Severe oil pollution, damaged infrastructure and flooded coal mines are creating a substantial, complex and lasting legacy of pollution in Ukraine. Addressing these problems will require long-term planning and financing, and state and international stakeholders should ensure that they are factoring in the scale of the remedial action necessary to mitigate future risks to people and ecosystems.
iv) Accelerate the transition from fossil fuel insecurity
From the local to the global level, the conflict is continuing to highlight the human and environmental security risks of fossil fuel dependency. Centralised fossil energy production dependent on overseas inputs leaves grids more vulnerable to attack and manipulation than diverse, highly decentralised renewable energy systems. Moreover, the environmental costs of wartime damage to some renewable energy facilities are far lower. Ukraine and international donors should use its recovery to build back a greener, safer and more resilient, decentralised energy grid.
Media enquiries: doug(at)ceobs.org or nickolai.denisov(at)zoinet.org
Research and content by CEOBS and Zoï Environment Network.
Review and additional contributors: Anna Ackerman and Kostiantyn Krynytskyi, Ecoaction; Iryna Sotnyk, Sumy State University and University of Geneva; Viktor Karamushka, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
Cartography and graphics: Matthias Beilstein, Zoï Environment Network, Schaffhausen.
References for Figure 1.
|ID||Time Posted (UTC)||Link|
- Pollutants from oil storage fires include particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), nitrous acid (HONO), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, carbon disulphide (C2S), dioxins, furans, hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
- The plume was visible in Sentinel-3 imagery (08:25 UTC), and that from the MODIS instrument on the Terra (~08:50 UTC) and Aqua (~10:45 UTC) satellites.
- The blaze is visible on 26th March through the NASA Firms fire hotspots, and on Sentinel-2 short-wave infra-red imagery.
- The most well characterised and analogous case is the 2005 Buncefield oil depot fire in the UK, although it was on a much larger scale. Jaume Targa et al., (2006) and Mather et al., (2007) present the measurements of the Buncefield smoke plume taken from ground, air and satellite.
- According to our analysis of ECMWF ERA5 hourly data, the boundary layer height was approx. 750 m at 18:00 UTC, the time the fire started, and it then dropped to approx. 200 m from 23:00 UTC until 06:00 UTC on the morning of the 25th. The expected plume height of combustion products in a standard atmosphere is 2-3 km. Notably, the nocturnal boundary layer was much thinner the night before and after the fire – as low as 30 m – it would have been even more beneficial for local air quality had the fire happened on these nights. The same was true of the well characterised Buncefield oil depot explosion, see Vautard et al., (2007) for a comprehensive discussion of the dynamics of such buoyant plumes, and Mohan et al., (2012) for an analysis of the worst-case health impacts. Unfortunately, there is no direct observational constraint on the plume height. Radiosonde measurements of the atmospheric profile – which could have been used to identify the boundary layer height – had routinely been taken in Kyiv (station UPM00033345), but no data is available after 24th February. Presumably the measurements stopped as a result of the conflict – loss of environmental data during conflicts is common, and can obstruct understanding of environmental phenomena. There was also no coincident overpass of the CALIPSO satellite, which could have been used to identify the plume and its height. Finally, it is not possible to visually confirm that the plume was injected into the free troposphere, as there is not enough clarity on the available footage to show the expected plume shape from this phenomenon.
- For this study we ran the HYSPLIT dispersion model to understand exposure and deposition. This model run represents a first-pass approach to understand the plume movement – limitations in the model, such as representation of plume rise, mean the results ought to be treated as indicative only. To better characterise the plume, a multi-model approach that encapsulates plume vertical movement would be recommended. Links to the SETUP and CONTROL files for reproduction of our results. The authors gratefully acknowledge the NOAA Air Resources Laboratory for the provision of the HYSPLIT transport and dispersion model and/or READY website (https://www.ready.noaa.gov) used in this publication.
- Concentrations were 16,500 mg/kg immediately adjacent to the oil depot, 8,500 mg/kg in Kalynivka village, 3,500 mg/kg 200 m away from the depot, and the background sample 500 m away was 270 mg/kg. Ukraine’s environmental standards for oil products in soil are 1,000 mg/kg at oil storage, processing and similar facilities, and 500 mg/kg elsewhere.
- Also note that there was another attack at the Kryachky oil depot on 27th February, resulting in a similar level of damage and contamination.