- Associated Press - Sunday, December 18, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — An oil-drilling platform capsized and later sank amid fierce storms off Russia’s east coast Sunday, plunging dozens of workers into the churning, icy waters. Four were confirmed dead, and 49 were missing.

The Transportation Ministry said the Kolskaya platform started sinking after a strong wave broke some of its equipment and the portholes in the crew’s dining room. One 16-foot wave washed away the platform’s lifeboats, leaving the crew with no escape.

The Emergencies Ministry said in a statement Sunday that 67 people were aboard the platform as it was being towed about 120 miles off the coast of Sakhalin Island.

Fourteen people were rescued from the sea by the ship that had been towing the platform, but further rescue efforts were being hampered by the severe weather conditions, officials said.

A spokeswoman for the Emergency Ministry in the Far East told the Associated Press that the rescue team had spotted four lifeless bodies in the water but had not yet been able to retrieve them.

The oil-drilling platform Kolskaya is seen in the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia's Far East coast in an undated photograph. (AP Photo/Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka)
The oil-drilling platform Kolskaya is seen in the Sea of Okhotsk off ... more >

The Kolskaya was built in Finland in 1985 and is owned by Russian offshore exploration firm Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka. It sank several hours after it capsized, officials said.

There were no immediate reports of environmental damage, and that would be unlikely since the platform was not drilling for oil when it capsized and carried a negligible amount of fuel.

The Investigative Committee on Sunday opened a probe into the accident and said that it might have happened because of a breach of safety regulations or because of the weather conditions.

As oil and gas fields in Eastern Siberia are becoming depleted, Russian oil and gas companies are starting to shift their focus to offshore projects, unveiling ambitious plans to tap the riches of the Arctic.

Earlier this year, Exxon Mobil and Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, teamed up to jointly explore oil and gas fields in the Kara Sea, with Exxon pledging $3.2 billion of investment on only three fields.

Alexei Knizhnikov, an energy policy official in Russia for the World Wildlife Fund, told the RIA Novosti news agency that energy companies ought to learn from Sunday’s accident.

“This disaster should highlight the high risks of offshore projects,” he said. “It’s very difficult to conduct efficient rescue operations, whether it’s rescuing people or dealing with oil spills, in the weather conditions of the Arctic.”