Vladimir Potanin, one of the 50 richest people on the planet, stood awkwardly on the Siberian tundra near the remote mining city of Norilsk. It had been less than a week since a spill that threatened to become one of Russia’s worst disasters in the Arctic, caused entirely by an aging fuel tank owned by his mining operations. The billionaire was about to receive a verbal lashing from Russian President Vladimir Putin in front of a national audience.
The live broadcast was supposed to be a celebration of Ecologist’s Day, which meant the timing couldn’t have been worse. Nornickel, the company run by Potanin, made global headlines on May 29 by leaking 150,000 barrels of diesel into a damaged Arctic ecosystem. The accident set off a summer of dismal news from across Siberia that would within weeks include record-breaking heat, startling wildfires, and melting permafrost. The Russian leader was not pleased.