Going to the End of the Earth

Exploitation of the Russian Arctic shelf becomes a national project that environmentalists are seriously concerned about

On June 9, the Arctic expedition “Kara-Winter2014”returned, which organizers call the most ambitious expedition since theSoviet Union. For about two months on the icebreaker “Yamal”, researchers have studied the ice cover, the drift of icebergs, meteorological conditions and the seabed. New floating buoys installed from Novaya Zemlya to theEast Siberian Seawill help to build 3D-models of ice formations.

But information about the expedition is rather scarce, and scientists have no right to talk about it without the consent of the customer. The studies were organized by the Arctic Research andDesignCenter– a joint venture of oil companies Rosneft and ExxonMobil. Rosneft does not deny that the expedition is important to them from a practical point of view: they hope to start producing natural resources on the Arctic shelf in a few years’ time.

The company emphasizes, though, that it is willing to invest generously in research. Arctic exploration is perceived as a national project designed to revive the Russian North and give impetus to the “re-industrialization” of the country. However, not everyone is happy with the oilers’ plans. GreenpeaceRussiabelieves that the development of theArcticis bad for Russian economy and dangerous for the whole planet and that Rosneft has different main objectives.

“Pirates” of Pechora Sea

Greenpeace has been around the block. The organization has held numerous protests against drilling in theArctic Ocean. The most notable of them, the one at the Prirazlomnaya platform owned by Gazprom, caused activists a lot of trouble.

On September 18, 2013, Greenpeace activists from different countries tried to put a banner on the platform, which at that time only planned to start oil production in the Arctic shelf. As a result, 30 people from the Greenpeace ship were arrested, and most of them spent a few months in jail on charges of piracy first and then hooliganism. They were released in December under an amnesty in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the Russian constitution.

Greenpeace considers Arctic exploration project as exclusively political: the environmentalists can see no economic or other reasons for massive investments in the heavy-to-master region. They believe there are faster and cheaper alternative ways of extraction or replacement of oil and gas.

The Second Industrial Revolution

According to the independent Global Ocean Commission, the Arctic shelf could hold about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and about 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. But this is only an estimate.

“Recoverable resources could be about a hundred billion tons of oil equivalent, of which about 85–87 percent is natural gas, and 13–15 percent is oil”, Oleg Suprunenko, Deputy Director for Science at the I.M. Gramberg VNIIOkeangeologia says. “But you have to take into account the very low level of knowledge of the Arctic shelf. Our estimates are not very reliable, because they are based primarily on geophysical data in the absence of drilling over large areas of the shelf”.

However, them Arctic has already been decided for. Over the next 20 years, Rosneft is planning to spend a very impressive amount of money on the Arctic shelf exploration and exploitation: about $400 billion. The company is sure that it will give an impetus to the growth of the entire country’s economy: it will create new jobs and demand for different sectors of Russian industry – shipbuilding, engineering, transport, metallurgy.

Rosneft rejects allegations that such a strategy fixes Russia in the role of an “oil appendage”. On the contrary, in their opinion, all this will spur the creation of new advanced technologies and ensure rapid industrial growth of the country.

“Strategic mistake”

The Head of Energy Program in Greenpeace Russia, Vladimir Chuprov, is sitting at a laptop in their Moscow office, looking through numerous presentations he has been preparing on the topic of the Arctic shelf. “It's like trying to extinguish the fire with kerosene”, he says about Rosneft’s strategy. “You do not kick the oil-and-gas habit and immediately put half a trillion dollars into oil and gas which may even not be there”.

In his opinion, there are far more reasonable ways to spend money and to ensure the country's energy future: “For example, to raise the oil recovery factor from existing fields on land. InRussiait is outrageously low: about 20 percent, while in the world, it is about 40 percent on average. Or to invest in technologies of oil and gas saving in transport and energy sectors”.

Strange as it may seem, Greenpeace Russia speaks more about economy than environment as far as the Arctic resources issue is concerned. Chuprov says this language is better understood by the country’s leaders. The investment in new oil fields Chuprov calls nothing short of “strategic mistake”.

"For decades ahead, we are going fix ourselves in the next raw material export-oriented sector in difficult macroeconomic conditions”, Chuprov says. “Tens of thousands of people will leave their health in theArctic. And in 20–30 years, we will find ourselves in a situation: ok, we have built the infrastructure for the Arctic shelf, we’ve taken this oil – and so what? What will we do with that part of the economy and the internal market which were once shortchanged money on new technology?”

“Green” technologies are, according to Vladimir Chuprov, a viable alternative to oil and gas. “Calculations show that if humanity come to one trillion dollars a year investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, we can largely say goodbye to oil as a feedstock for transportation fuels. Now, for comparison, the investment around the world is approximately $200 billion”.

Knowing the disposition

Not everyone agrees with these optimistic anticipations. “We're talking about the prospect of Arctic resources development, and this is 10–20 years. I do not think that during this period we will find alternative resources that can fully close humanity’s needs”, says Deputy Director for the Ecology of the Seas and Oceans at the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Mikhail Flint.

Then, the oil is not just energy,Flintreminds: “It's primarily a source for a huge range of petrochemical industry. Without which we can not do, and we have nothing to replace it with so far”.

The Head of the “Arctic Shelf” Laboratory at theArcticand Antarctic Research Institute, Yuri Gudoshnikov, believes that exploration of the Arctic fields is necessary in any case: “So far, the main wealth for everyone is resources. Therefore it is necessary to explore the fields, to know what and where is stored, and to plan when to start production. Whether to leave it to our children or to use a momentary depends on the situation”. 

Michael Flint notes that “green technologies” require large investments: “To afford what is unprofitable, you must be strong and rich”, the scientist continues. Thus, he also does not see a viable alternative to oil and gas: “It is necessary, and there is no way around it. Unfortunately, no environmental considerations can stop it”.


Meanwhile, there are quite a lot of environmental considerations. Hypothetical oil spill in theArctic Oceancan have very serious consequences for the local ecosystem. “If you compare the ecosystem with an organism and figuratively describe all cycles of matter and energy as “metabolism”, in high latitudes, this “metabolism” is very slow”, Mikhail Flint explains. “First of all, it’s because the diversity and speed of bacterial as well as all other biogeochemical processes is considerably less than there where the temperature is higher”.

This feature makes these ecosystems very sensitive to any kind of pollution. The oil that gets into the water will decompose very slowly biologically, and even slower chemically. In addition, according to the scientist, the ice is able to absorb much oil pollution. And with the transfer of ice that people can not control, oil can be delivered to the places in the Arctic that are most remote from the spill area.

All this could adversely affect the life of the inhabitants of the Far North – from plankton to fish and birds, walruses, seals and polar bears.

Reliability and risks

Are companies ready to provide security of the oil extraction? Rosneft claims it’s their priority to prevent accidents and save the environment. Together with the ExxonMobil, the corporation develops new mobile drilling platforms with gravitational base – especially for offshore drilling in the Arctic conditions. According to the plan, they must withstand extreme ice, wind, wave and thermal loads. One such platform has already been under construction for a few years now.

Vladimir Chuprov is skeptical about oil companies’ assurances and stresses that there is currently no proven technology of dealing with oil spills in ice conditions. To illustrate it, he refers to the plan for oil spill response adopted by Gazprom: “Here you are: Prirazlomnaya platform. I specifically chose the information about how they will deal with spills in ice conditions. They say they’ll drill a well, dip up the oil and burn the rest of it. But after half an hour, the oil does not burn any more, mixing with water in ice conditions. And how will they collect 10,000 tons of oil from the ice up to two meters thick?”

As for the oil-spill booms – floating marine barriers designed to limit oil spill on the surface of the water – Chuprov also has doubts about their effectiveness: “25 accidents were analyzed, and in 24 cases, these booms did not work. Imagine a wave, a big storm, or an ice block going onto these booms”. The same applies to skimmers – special devices to collect oil from the sea surface: “Until recently, Gazprom assumed their skimmers would be 100% effective. But after the disaster in theGulf of Mexico, skimmers were able to collect only 3% of the oil”.

Bacteria that are cold

Scientists look differently on the safety of oil production in the Arctic.

“Extraction technology is advanced enough, and proper design of machinery can help to avoid any possible accidents”, Yuri Gudoshnikov says. “Prirazlomnaya is working all right, thank God. We conducted expeditions there in the winter to explore the ice and the loads on the platform. And then, when we need Arctic oil (the oil on land is in priority, I suppose) – I think the technology will be even better”.

Michael Flint is less optimistic: “There’s no way we can exclude disasters. Just as we cannot foresee the consequences and deal with them”. As a biologist, he explains that, for example, the use of bacteria, which in case of an accident could split oil into harmless compounds, will be extremely difficult in theArctic: the bacteria will not work at such low temperatures. Chemical cleaners – detergents will also behave differently.

Since extracting oil in theArctic, according to the scientist, is unavoidable, the main safeguard against possible disasters he believes must be state control: “I think there should be a very tough political will: the state must force oil companies to apply the technologies that guarantee environmental safety to the fullest extent, and punish all blunders very toughly”.

A Five-Year Plan

Just this, among other things, the international Global Ocean Commission said recently. On June 24, it released a report which offered eight practical measures to preserve the global marine ecosystem. The Commission members (among them prominent politicians and businessmen, for example, former Costa Rican President Jose Maria Figueres) call on the international community to put these measures into practice within the next five years.

Their suggestions are: first, to formulate a separate UN Sustainable Development Goal for the Global Ocean. Second, to bring up-to-date the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Third, to phase out subsidies for high seas fishing. Fourth, to oppose illegal fishing. Fifth, to minimize the use of disposable plastic packaging, which infests the oceans.

The sixth suggestion refers to oil and gas extraction on the continental shelves. The Commission proposes to establish international safety standards in this area as soon as possible. Although the shelves belong to individual countries, the water above them – beyond 200 nautical miles from the coast – applies to international waters. So they are the international community’s sphere of responsibility, the report says.

The Commission proposes to develop an international convention that would provide strict financial and legal responsibility of companies engaged in drilling. Under these rules, companies would have to recover all costs associated with the possible accident, including those for the environment. In addition, they would have a separate compensation fund in case these costs exceed the established level of substantive liability. States would have to ensure that companies have all this money.

The seventh proposal of the Commission is to create an independent Global Ocean Accountability Board. And the eighth proposal, finally, is to make the high seas a regeneration zone if within five years the humanity fails to improve the Global Ocean’s condition.

The oil production in the Russian Arctic shelf is just at the beginning, and right in five years it will become clear how big it can grow. If the Commission’s proposals are taken seriously by the world community, the oil companies may have to begin paying even much more attention to the ecology than they do now.

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