An oil drilling rig has capsized off Russia’s Far East coast, leaving four dead and about 50 crew members missing in freezing waters.

Russia’s emergencies ministry said rescuers would search through Sunday night for the unaccounted crew.

The rig was being towed towards Sakhalin island on Sunday morning when a storm with strong winds hit, sinking the vessel in just 20 minutes.

The accident is likely to fuel environmentalists’ concerns about the risks of offshore drilling and Russia’s extensive plans to explore its Arctic continental shelf.

Russia’s federal investigative committee, which answers to President Dmitry Medvedev, said it would investigate the accident. “Violation of safety rules during the towing of the drilling rig as well as towing without consideration of the weather conditions . . . are believed to be the cause of the [disaster],” it said.

Fourteen of the 67 crew were safely taken ashore by one of the boats tugging the platform but 49 remained missing late on Sunday. Four crew members’ bodies have already been found.

Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka, the rig operator, said the rig had been carrying only a small amount of fuel and that the accident had not appeared to cause ecological damage, in contrast to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Home to an estimated 5bn tones of crude oil and 10,000bn cubic metres of gas, the Arctic is the focus of a $3.2bn joint venture between Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled oil group, and ExxonMobil of the US, as well as a cornerstone of the Russian government’s oil and gas policy through to 2030.

Valery Nesterov, an oil and gas analyst at Troika Dialog, the investment bank, said Russia was unlikely to reverse this strategy.despite the tragedy of Sunday’s accident. “This offshore production remains very risky, especially in the offshore waters, and I believe it will add to environmentalists’ concerns,” he said.

But he added that the country had already placed too many hopes on the Arctic shelf. “Onshore reserves are being gradually depleted and offshore is seen as being a last frontier, the last resources to be tapped,” he said.

Meeting with the deputy head of Russia’s emergencies ministry on Sunday, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered that all possible help be given to save the oil rig’s missing crew members.

The rig, which was built in 1985 in Finland, had been exploring in the Sea of Okhotsk, a branch of the Pacific between Sakhalin and the Kamchatka peninsula, on contract for state-controlled Gazprom. Gazprom said the contract had finished on December 4.

Alexander Burgansky, head of research at Otkritie Capital, said the accident was unlikely to affect either of the two major offshore projects in the area, as the sinking appeared to be an issue of transportation as opposed to a problem with the drilling rig itself.

Gazprom is the controlling shareholder in the offshore venture Sakhalin-2, while Exxon operates Sakhalin-1.

Russia’s Federal Agency for Sea and River Transport said the rig began to sink after 6 metre-high waves knocked out one of the rig’s dining room windows, flooding it with water. While crew members had access to life jackets, all four of the rig’s lifeboats were found empty.

Get alerts on Russia when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article