*[Enwl-eng] Russia Charges Into the Arctic, To Drill for Oil and Gas

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Dec 22, 2011, 10:53:34 AM12/22/11
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Russia blasting into fragile Arctic in search of oil

Published On Sat Dec 17 2011

Illustration Omitted:
Prirazlomnaya platform is towed out to sea from Murmansk on
Aug.18, 2011. GAZPROM PHOTO

By Paul Watson Star Columnist

MURMANSK, RUSSIA-For as long as humans have spread out to conquer the
planet, despoiling as they progress, the Arctic's punishing
environment has been its best defence.

Like fortress ramparts, heavy snow, metres-thick ice and battering
winds made it very hard for miners, oil drillers and industrialists
to take much ground, let alone make a grab for the riches of a frozen
sea.

Those walls are crumbling fast.

The rush is on to drill offshore in the fragile Arctic, and Russia is
at the front of the pack with ambitious, and risky, plans to exploit
some of the world's biggest untapped oil and natural gas reserves.

Around 1,200 kilometres northwest of here, squeezed from all sides by
the powerful ice of the Pechora Sea, Russia's first ice-resistant
stationary oil rig in the Arctic shelf is set to begin drilling for
crude.

Fifteen years in the building, the Prirazlomnaya drilling platform is
126 square metres, weighs 117,000 tons without ballast, and sits on a
gigantic box of heavy steel designed to withstand the intense
pressure of constantly shifting Arctic ice.

It took an icebreaker and three tugs to tow it from Murmansk to the
drill site, a 10-day journey that ended Aug. 28. The voyage marked
the beginning of a new, some say dangerous, era in the Arctic.

As Russia moves farther offshore to uncover the Arctic's long-hidden
treasures, its polar neighbours are following suit, and pressure is
likely to build on Canada to follow suit.

Norway, a pioneer of drilling in harsh, icy conditions offshore, is
pressing ahead with a 20-year plan to develop undersea Arctic fields
despite public anger after an Icelandic cargo ship spilled an unknown
amount of oil into a marine park in February.

Greenland approved exploratory oil drilling by a British firm this
year in the waters shared by Canada's eastern Arctic. So far, the
$1-billion effort is a bust.

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration approved
Royal Dutch Shell's request to drill six exploration wells next year
in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska, and is considering proposals for
drilling in the nearby Beaufort Sea. The waters border Canada's
Arctic.

There is no drilling off Canada's Arctic coast today. The National
Energy Board announced new requirements for permits Thursday,
including a demand that drillers show how they would kill an
out-of-control well in the same season.

The regulator doesn't currently have any applications for offshore
drilling before it, but added "we expect to see such applications in
the future."

The BP Deepwater Horizon blowout last year in the Gulf of Mexico is
the stuff of nightmares for opponents of offshore Arctic drilling.

While the well gushed for three months, some 40,000 people, working
on more than 4,000 vessels, deployed thousands of kilometres of
containment booms to fight the spill, said Alexander Shestakov at the
World Wildlife Fund.

There aren't enough ice-class vessels to match that armada in the
event of a large Arctic spill, and booms are useless in waters thick
with ice, he added.

Oil companies, and the governments that allow them to drill in the
fragile Arctic, are trying to learn as they conduct very hazardous
work without proven technology and knowledge to make sure it's safe,
Shestakov said.

"That's unacceptable everywhere in this kind of business, but
especially in the Arctic because the cost of any mistake is
enormous," he said.

Ready or not, the Prirazlomnaya platform is now anchored to the
bottom of the Pechora Sea, a shallow stretch of the southeastern
Barents Sea that is fewer than 19 metres deep and is around 60
kilometres off Russia's coast.

Starting with a test phase, workers will pump oil intermittently to
check the quality, said Ilya Vinokurov, chief geologist at the
state-owned company Sevmorgeo, which conducts seismic mapping of the
seabed, including Russia's Arctic shelf, to find oil and natural
fields.

Testing will be completed by the end of next year, said Ivan Titkov,
a spokesman for Gazprom, the state-owned firm that owns the rig and
the fields it will drill. This summer, the company said the rig would
be producing oil by now.

If it moves into full production, pipes called drill strings will
slope down from the single platform, like the arms of a giant squid
stretching to the seabed to bore as many as 40 slanted wells. The
drill strings' top ends will be surrounded by a heavy steel caisson,
shaped like a large box, which rests on the sea floor.

It has double walls of steel, filled with concrete to add weight and
durability, which are three metres thick, Titkov said.

The rig's design features "completely eliminate oil spills from the
platform," he claimed.

As many as 200 crew members will live and work on the rig year round,
in temperatures that can plummet to minus 50 deg C, pumping oil onto
tankers that will ferry it closer to shore.

Oil stored in 16 tanks in the drill platform's base will be pumped
into shuttle tankers that will deliver the crude to a floating
storage facility some hundreds of kilometres to the southwest, in
Kola Bay.

The region is notorious for fierce storms, and drifting ice, so the
tankers may prove much harder to protect than the rig itself.

Citing that and other risks, five environmental groups including the
WWF, Greenpeace Russia and the Norway-based Bellona Foundation want
the Kremlin to halt what they call an experiment and "a ticking
ecological bomb."

Prirazlomnaya is a pilot project for Gazprom, but if it works,
similar rigs are expected to dot Russia's northern coast, and
opponents say that will only multiply the risk of spills.

"Even companies recognize now that as of today, there is no
technology to deal with oil spills in the Arctic," Shestakov said.

"So that's why, despite all these promises of 'Don't worry, we will
do everything in a reasonable way, and the work is sound and safe,' I
don't see any evidence that's true."

Experts at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St.
Petersburg made several expeditions to the Pechora Sea to study its
metres-thick ice, measuring the extreme forces that can suddenly
buckle it toward the sea floor with a sharp punch.

The rig is tough, with a base made of steel similar to icebreaker
hulls, but that isn't invincible against the harsh Arctic, said
Alexander Danilov, the institute's deputy director.

"Certainly there are exploitation risks," he said. "You can't get a
100 per cent guarantee."

In the event of a major accident, emergency crews would be in
uncharted territory.

In winter, workers would have to fight to contain the freezing ooze
in 24-hour darkness, in temperatures too frigid for oil eating
bacteria to survive.

With Arctic storms growing stronger, and more frequent, cleanup crews
would likely be battling the elements as much as the oil.

The Pechora Sea is some 1,400 kilometres south of the closest
Canadian land, the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. But Arctic
waters ignore borders, so an environmental catastrophe off Russia's
coast could soon become Canada's problem.

In theory, oil trapped under ice might ride the same currents that
early Arctic explorers did in the 19th century and deliver the mess
to Canada within a year or two, Shestakov said.

"The overall conclusion of a number of Canadian agencies is that
Canada is absolutely not prepared for anything major," he said.

Russia, currently the world's biggest oil producer, according to the
International Energy Agency, is trying to diversify and modernize its
economy so its future isn't so closely tied to the export of oil and
natural gas.

But like a drunk who can't pass up an open bar, the country can't
seem to resist going after reserves that are suddenly simpler, and
cheaper, to reach because Arctic ice is melting so fast.

Lev Karlin, rector of the Russian State Hydrometeorological
University in St. Petersburg, has a small forest of potted tropical
plants in his office, and a large collection of stuffed lions in
honour of his name, which is Leo in English.

Like many Russian experts on climate change, he thinks it is caused
more by cycles of nature and solar activity than anything humans are
doing.

Ocean temperature readings, among other data, suggest to him that
global warming is coming to an end and the world is entering a
cooling period.

"If, over the next 10 years, temperatures don't drop, then we can
draw the conclusion that the warming is caused by humans," he said.

For now, there is no disputing that the Arctic has lost between 20
per cent to 30 per cent of its ice over the last decade, and that
sudden opening has quickly drawn energy companies offshore in recent
years, Karlin said.

"And we have no choice but to develop the Arctic fields," he added.
"We are running out of our inland reserves."

Disappearing ice also makes it easier to move the oil and natural gas
by tankers through the Northern Sea Route, which links Europe and
Asia by way of Russia's Arctic coast.

The country's federal budget stands to gain between $90 billion and
$134 billion in revenues from accessing its offshore Arctic reserves
by 2020, the ministry of natural resources estimates.

This summer, the U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil signed a $3.2 billion
deal with Russia's Rosneft to develop just three blocks in the
Arctic's Kara Sea, northeast of Murmansk.

Those fields alone contain 36 billion barrels of recoverable oil,
according to Rosneft, Russia's largest oil producer. That's 10 times
the total amount of oil that wells across Russia produced in all of
2010.

A warming Arctic climate presents problems as well as opportunities.
The Yamal peninsula, where Russia gets most of its natural gas for
export to Europe, is laced with a network of pipes resting on
permafrost.

If the ground melts, the pipelines could start to burst, causing
untold damage to Russia's economy as well as its environment.

At least 60 per cent of Russia, the world's biggest country, is
permafrost, or soil that's at or below 0 deg C. Vast swaths of
melting Siberian peat bogs would release massive amounts of methane,
which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is more than 20
times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the
atmosphere over a 100-year period.

One of the world's largest natural gas fields - the Shtokam field -
lies deep under the Barents Sea, around 550 kilometres north of the
Kola Peninsula, where drilling rigs will have to contend with
rock-solid icebergs calved in the melting High Arctic.

The Kremlin hopes Gazprom and its Norwegian and French partners can
start pumping gas from the Shtokman field late in 2016, three years
behind schedule. It's expected to cost $15 billion just to get the
first phase going.

Russia's state-run weather forecaster has warned that icebergs the
size of Jamaica could come ploughing through the Barents Sea if the
Arctic continues to warm.

So Russian engineers are working on a novel defence: Build
self-propelled rigs that can sail away if a monitoring system using
reconnaissance helicopters and radar, satellite photos and weather
forecasting detects an iceberg on a collision course.

Around the clock, the system would watch for icebergs and if any
drifted into a danger zone near a rig, it would pull up anchor and
steam to safer waters, said Sergey Frolov, head of the Arctic
institute's ice navigation laboratory.

It's not as simple as it might sound because the wells have to be
closed off before the drilling platform disappears.

In case movable rigs don't solve the problem, Danilov said his
experts are also learning from Canadian research into towing and
shoving small icebergs with ships.

The Arctic quest for fossil fuels may eventually follow the rapidly
shrinking polar ice sheet all the way to the top of the world, where
Canada and Russia have conflicting claims over undersea mountain
ranges.

Both countries have been plumbing the polar ocean's depths for
evidence that they have territorial rights over the Lomonosov,
Mendeleev and Alpha Ridges, which run for thousands of kilometres
under High Arctic ice.

Russia failed to convince a United Nations commission of its claim in
2001 and is hurrying to submit its case again by 2013, when Canada
also faces a deadline to argue its Arctic claims under the UN
Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Next year, a Russian expedition will use sophisticated devices called
seismic streamers, supplied by a U.S. firm and towed behind a Russian
icebreaker, to get more detailed maps of the area's sea floor,
Vinokurov said.

Farther south, the Russians will drill for samples from a rig over
the Mendeleev Ridge in an effort to show it is an extension of its
continental shelf, a key argument in Moscow's claim over the North
Pole.

When the dispute is discussed in Canada, the area is often described
as rich in oil and natural gas.

Russian experts say they doubt it.

"There aren't likely to be huge oilfields there," Vinokurov,
Sevmorgeo's chief geologist, said. "Maybe in between the ridges there
are. But it's very, very deep - three to four kilometres deep.

"And that's only an assumption. No research has been done there. The
same goes for Canadians and Americans - only assumptions."

Oil and natural gas, Russia's most lucrative exports, are expected to
help revive what the Kremlin wants to be the second biggest source of
foreign revenue: the Northern Sea Route.

The 5,500-kilometre passage along Russia's northern coast opened
during an earlier warming period in the 1930s. But like much of the
country's Soviet-era infrastructure, it fell on hard times after the
Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago.

Sometimes called the Northeast Passage, it's a far more developed
rival to the Northwest Passage that winds through Canada's High
Arctic islands.

Arctic warming has made both attractive to international shippers
looking to cut thousands of kilometres off the sea journey between
Europe and Asia.

But Russia's Northern Sea Route has several advantages, including
more infrastructure, such as a network ports and escort icebreakers,
and fewer narrow channels.

The Kremlin is spending billions of dollars to revive the decrepit
facilities along the route, and is counting on oil and gas exports to
help pay the bills.

This summer, the Russian-owned Vladimir Tikhonov became the first
supertanker ever to navigate the Northern Sea Route.

The 280-metre ship set sail from Norway, bunkered 120,000 tons of gas
condensate in Murmansk, and then completed the Arctic transit
escorted by two of Russia's nuclear-powered icebreakers.

After clearing Arctic waters in under nine days, the supertanker
steamed for port in Thailand to deliver its cargo of Russian natural
gas.

It was only one of nine tankers that sailed across Russia's northern
coast this summer, carrying a total of 600,000 tons of gas
condensate, more than eight times the load of hydrocarbons carried on
that route in 2010.

To Oleg Suprenenko, an elderly, tweed-jacketed professor with owlish
glasses and a grey beard that comes to a Leninesque point, the
voyages herald a new golden age for a shipping lane that was the
pride of the Soviet Union.

"Generally, there's not much life in it," said Suprenenko, head of
Arctic oil and gas resources for Russia's ministry of natural
resources.

"But if global warming proves to be true, then this Northern Sea
Route will be the shortest way between Europe and the Far East and
back. And it won't be as expensive as current routes.

"Some of the towns along there have been abandoned in the years since
the Soviet period. There is hope that the exploration and development
of oil and natural gas in the northern areas will bring the Northern
Sea Route back to life."

But a well blowout, or a ruptured tanker, could poison wildlife and
coastal communities that can't escape.

A small, and threatened population of Atlantic walruses, which are a
protected species in Russia, live in the Pechora Sea.

Ecologists estimate they number in the low hundreds and their
survival depends on two island rookeries that could be devastated by
a large spill from the Prirazlomnaya field.

But no one knows for sure how many walruses are there because, even
as oil drilling compounds the threat against them, the animals
haven't been properly counted.

Proof of the damage that Arctic oil can do is obvious to anyone who
has reached Kolguyev Island, a small, isolated place east of the
Pechora Sea, where most villagers get by on fishing, hunting and
reindeer herding.

There are 14 operating oil well sites, and four mothballed wells, on
the island and they have spilled heavy metals and other pollution
into the tundra, the streams flowing in nearby canyons and the sea,
said Oleg Sutkaitis, who heads WWF Russia's Barents office in
Murmansk.

"Extracting oil at almost the 70th parallel north in the permafrost
zone is an extremely difficult task," Sutkaitis said. .

"Wells and oil equipment operate both during summer gales and severe
winter frosts," he added. "For more efficient oil production,
companies drilled over 200 wells and built inter-field pipelines,
roads, quarries, wharves, siphons, a sea terminal, communications
facilities, helicopter pads, oil depots, industrial installations,
and industrial bases."

And Kolguyev, which lost bird breeding grounds to the wells, doesn't
even have a lot of oil to take, Sutkaitis said.

"Eventually, 25 or 30 years on, after the minerals are depleted, it
could turn into a dead island," he warned.

http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/1103787--russia-blasting-into-fragile-arctic-in-search-of-oil?bn=1


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