Home to 22% of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and natural gas, Russia has set its sights on the untapped resources of the Arctic. Since the 1960s, over 60 oil and natural gas fields have been discovered in the Arctic. However, freezing temperatures and hostile conditions have left these areas abandoned, leaving a minefield of valuable natural resources. But with rising temperatures comes melting ice and a significant opportunity for those who choose to pursue it.
Russia has earned a reputation for its resources-based power. “Russia historically has been a territorial and natural-resources-driven power, and it has remained so until present day,” states Agnia Grigas, author of The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas. She adds, “The focus on locking in Arctic resources and routes goes hand-in-hand with the Kremlin’s ambitions of extending its influence and great-power status beyond its territory.”.
With the abundance of undiscovered oil and natural gas now available for bidding, the Arctic’s resources have now become part of a strategic political power-play, and one that Russia does not intend to lose.
43 of the 60 oil and natural gas fields are located in Russian territory. One such area is Yamal, which translates to “end of the world” in the language of the Nenet people, a local group known for reindeer herding and their survival in this harsh climate. However, this previously undisturbed area that the Nenets have called home for thousands of years is about the be the location of extensive drilling and mining projects.
Novatek, the second largest natural gas producer in Russia, has just completed the development of its $27 billion Yamal LNG plant. Capable of extracting natural gas thousands of feet below the frozen ground and then stabilizing it for transportation, the Yamal LNG plant is able to deliver up to 18 million tons of this resource each year. However, many obstacles still stand in the way of this project reaching its full potential.
The obstacles involving this project mainly revolve around transportation in the Arctic’s tough environment. While the increase in melting ice has opened up a unique advantage to the development of this area, the Arctic still produces ice at least eight months of the year. Meanwhile, three months of the year offer no light and temperatures can reach -50 degree Fahrenheit at any time.
The natural gas extracted by the Yamal LNG plant is transported by tankers using the Northeast Passage to travel to the U.S. and Europe. However, traveling through thick ice and in extreme weather conditions can slow travel in these areas, and in the event that a vessel becomes stuck, help can take weeks to arrive. This is a situation photographer Charles Xelot experienced firsthand onboard a Russian vessel, the RZK Constanta, which was transporting equipment to the new LNG plant. While traveling through the Northeast Passage, the vessel was trapped in ice and the nuclear icebreaker sent to help could not arrive for multiple weeks.
However, the Yamal LNG plant has been one of Russia’s top projects for the past four years, and specialty vessels have since been constructed to combat such conditions. One of these vessels is the Christophe de Margerie, a specially designed icebreaker tanker. This vessel is capable of slicing through up to seven feet of ice with ease and is worth over $320 million. In addition to this tanker, fourteen other vessels have been created for the new plant. But traveling to the plant still requires equipment like snowmobiles and trekols in addition to sea vessels.
While the full operating potential of the Yamal LNG plant seems far away, Russia is showing a strong resolve to dominate the natural resources of the Arctic. What this may mean for the expansion of Russia’s power and influence is yet to be seen, but it is certain that the domination of this area is extremely valuable.
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