MOSCOW, Apr 20 (Reuters) Russia's pipeline monopoly today promised a giant new pipeline would not harm Siberia's Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, despite loud opposition from environmental groups to the project.
Scientists fear oil spills may destroy the unique environment of Baikal, which is home to a variety of freshwater seal and hundreds of other species found nowhere else.
Semyon Vainshtok, head of Transneft, who has described the ecologists' objections as absurd, said the safety features on the pipeline linking Russian oil fields and the Pacific would stop any spill harming the ''pearl of Siberia''.
The state's environmental watchdog approved the 11 billion dollar ipeline, which runs along part of the lake's pristine northern shore, last month and final formalities are now being wrapped up to allow building to start.
''Even if all the defence measures are breached then, by our assessment, not more than 171 kg of oil will fall into Baikal,'' he told Ekho Moskvy radio, saying that this amount was insignificantly small.
''Every day 500 kg of oil enters (the lake) down the river Severnaya Angara alone.'' The pipeline will carry 1.6 million barrels per day to China and the Pacific Coast and is key to to Russia's bid to diversify its key oil exports.
Experts gathered by the environmental watchdog initially rejected the project, saying it was too dangerous to build a pipeline next to a lake that is so prone to earthquakes that it widens two cm (one inch) every year.
But their decision was reversed after the head of the watchdog added new scientists to the commission.
Green groups including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund plan a large protest in Moscow against the project tomorrow.
REUTERS KD KN2145