License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

Q&A: Gazprom and the Arctic

Damian Kahya
Five activists attempted to climb the 'Prirazlomnaya,'
License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

The fight over the Arctic's oil and gas reserves has intensified - but what is actually going on? We've put together a short Q&A.

What's happened?

Russian authorities summoned the Dutch ambassador to Moscow (the Sunrise flies a Dutch flag) and accused Greenpeace of provocation. The Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise has been boarded and commandeered.  

What's this about?

The protest started over plans by Gazprom to become the first oil company in the world to produce oil commercially from beyond the Arctic ice line. In fact, the oil could reach European customers by 2014.

What's significant about Gazprom's move?

They aren't the first to head into the Arctic circle. Others, such as Norway's Statoil are producing gas from there and Shell's attempts to explore for oil in the Alaskan Arctic are well documented

But the Norwegian waters of the south Barents sea are relatively warm, and hold no ice - at least in the zones Statoil currently produces from. Gazprom is aiming to be the first to produce oil from beyond the ice line.

That matters because producing oil from a region where ice is present for nearly two thirds of the year could make cleaning any spill up.. complicated.

Are they up to it?

The firm have reportedly invested $4-5bn in the Prirazlomnaya platform which took 15 years to build and was launched amidst reports that it's technology was already out of date and not suitable for use in the region. 

Whilst being towed out to sea the rig lost its ladder. However Gazprom themselves describe the platform as "an offshore ice-resistant stationary platform is installed at the field – the first platform of this kind designed and constructed in Russia."

What happens if something goes wrong?

The Prirazlomnoye oil field is near a number of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries including the Nenetsky and Vaygach reserves which are particularly important to Walrus numbers. 

The problem is that cleaning up a spill in icy waters - with oil potentially moving under ice - has never been done. Indeed, there are many - including almost all environmental groups - who believe it is impossible. 

In a recent study for WWF, experts at the Russian Informatica Riska ran computerised risk models on various oil spill scenarios on the platform Prirazlomnaya and determined the total area which may be affected by an accident.

"Our analysis showed that, within the standards established by the spill volumes, we could often observe conditions when the operating company will not be able to contain and recover the spill. For example, if a spill occurred at night or under adverse meteorological conditions,” said Valentin Zhuravel, project manager at Informatica Riska. “This can lead to significant pollution in the Pechora Sea coast and protected areas".

The study concluded that the area of possible contamination covers over 140,000 square kilometres of open water, as well as over 3,000 kilometres of coastline. 

Similar studies by Pew and the USGS which have looked at the implications of a spill in US Arctic waters warning that cleaning up a spill would be difficult, if not impossible. 

Gazprom has argued that it "pays great attention to preventative environmental protection measures", but a Greenpeace analysis of the firm's spill response plans suggested the worst case scenario envisaged by the oil giant was for a spill of 10,000 tons of oil. BP's deep water horizon blow out spilled nearly 5 million barrels. The full plans have not been published online.

The Russian firm are adamant environmental damage would be limited, only a spill would provide conclusive evidence.

Are western firms involved?

Gazprom already works with western companies including Shell in a number of projects. Earlier this year the Anglo-Dutch oil giant signed a deal with Gazprom earlier this year to explore the Russian Arctic. The deal includes the Pechora sea. 

Do we need the oil?

Oil extraction from the Pechora Sea and the Russian Arctic is key to the country's plans to increase oil production and mitigate falling supply from traditional reserves.

However analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that more than 60% of currently proven reserves of oil should stay in the ground if the world is to avoid climate change at levels which would render parts of the planet uninhabitable.

This means that extracting Arctic oil - which is both expensive and largely unproven - is extremely unlikely to be compatible with global action to limit emissions.

Documents seen by The Guardian, however, suggest that Russia is now calling future reports by the UN's IPCCC to include plans to geo-engineer the planets climate. 


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