Ceci n’est pas une pipe: The surrealism of Russia’s three new Arctic pipelines


Russian President Vladimir Putin before giving a speech by teleconference to commemorate the opening of three new Arctic pipelines. Photo: The Kremlin.

On January 18, Russia’s state owned gas company, Gazprom, opened a new pipeline stretching from the frozen Bovanenkovskoye gas field of the Yamal Peninsula in Russian Arctic to Ukhta, a city in the country’s north. The 1,265-kilometer long Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 pipeline runs parallel to an existing pipeline with the same name. Its opening thus doubles capacity to a combined total of 115 billion cubic meters per year.

Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 connects with other Russian pipelines that eventually feed into the Nord Stream pipeline. Opened in 2012, the Gazprom-supported project runs from Russia under the Baltic Sea and terminates in Germany. In other words, Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 can now theoretically double the amount of Arctic gas that flows to Europe every year.

The Yamal Peninsula: strength in imaginary numbers

Gas production facility No. 2 of the Bovanenkovo gas fields in Russia's Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Gazprom.

Gas production facility No. 2 of the Bovanenkovskoye gas field in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Gazprom.

The Yamal Peninsula lies at the heart of two of Russia’s national strategies: first, to breathe new energy into its oil and gas industry by exploiting  the country’s northern resources, and second, to develop the Arctic. Gazprom notes on its website that for the gas production center in Yamal, to where its main resource base is shifting, the company has built “a railroad, which includes the world’s longest bridge beyond the Arctic Circle, and the first airport in Russia’s modern history.”

It should thus come as no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who gave a speech by videoconference commemorating the Arctic pipeline’s opening, proclaimed in his first few sentences, “This is not just a pipe” [full transcript in English/Russian]. Visions of Magritte paintings floated in my head when I read those words. Before getting too distracted by pipes, apples, and tophats, however, it’s worth situating Putin’s surreal words within their broader context. He expressed,

We continue developing Russia’s pipeline transportation system. I believe that not only professionals but also people perhaps far from the energy sector are well aware that the facilities we are launching today are not just pipelines, but complicated, large-scale industrial facilities.

Rene Magritte - The Treachery of Images

René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images [La Trahison des Images], 1929. 

Putin underlined the fact that not just one, but actually three pipelines opened on Wednesday. In addition to the main attraction, Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2, the Arctic pipelines Zapolyarye-Purpe and Kuyumba-Taishet were also unveiled. A few sentences later, Putin continued,

Their launch will substantially expand our oil and gas sector’s possibilities and will have tangible benefits for the entire Russian economy. This is indisputable. What is particularly important is that they will contribute to the [Russian Federation’s] regional development as well.

Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller took over next, extolling how his company laid more than 450 kilometers of pipeline “in the harshest climatic and geological conditions of the Far North.” At the same time, he stressed that the pipeline is the “most modern mainline gas pipeline in the world” (oddly, the Kremlin’s English transcript more modestly translates this sentence as “one of the most modern mainline gas pipeline in the world” (emphasis author).

Miller also plainly states that Bovanenkovo-Ukhta-2 will operate until 2087, a year that is almost farcically precise given how far it is into the future. For all we know, all of the permafrost underlying the pipeline may have turned to mush by then. Climate models suggest that the Yamal Peninsula may be over 6°C warmer by 2090.

IPCC climate projection with Yamal Peninsula highlighted.

IPCC projected surface temperature changes for 2090-2099 as compared to 1980-1999, with the Yamal Peninsula highlighted.

Nikolay Tokarev, President of state-owned Transneft, the world’s largest oil pipeline company, gave the following speech. He lauded the 8,000 specialists and 4,000 pieces of heavy machinery (“We used only Russian-made equipment”) that were involved in the construction of the other two Arctic pipelines. Making sure to mention the social sphere, Tokarev also explained, “…We also took care of social issues. We built 16,000 square meters of housing, created 1,500 new jobs, built 7 bridges, and energy facilities, while budgets at different levels have received around 3 billion in taxes.”


The announcements of numbers so large as to be incomprehensible (what, after all, constitutes 16,000 square meters of housing in human terms? Four of this Russian mansion in Rublyovka?) make the pipeline seem like an even more impressive achievement for the Russian state. It was not enough for Russia to simply open a pipeline that will ceaselessly pump Arctic gas to warm the gingerbread houses of Germany and beyond. Instead, the heads of industry and the Russian state itself, Putin, had to herald the magisterial symbolism of pipelines to the Russian nation.

The lines of steel that unify the nation

In nineteenth-century America, the opening of railroads spurred the nation’s people imagine themselves as more physically unified. In twenty-first-century Russia, the opening of pipelines is key to the country’s mastery of the Arctic, picking up a task that the Soviets left off as the twentieth century was drawing to a close. But whereas railroads at least connected communities (along with the wheat fields, cattle ranches, and orange orchards whose products they brought to market) pipelines really only connect resources to terminals. They do little to connect people or strengthen a nation’s social fabric, except when people use them in unexpected ways as has been documented by geographers like Michael Watts and others working in Nigeria. That is why it is even more important for state and business officials like Putin, Miller, and Tokarev to speak of pipelines in sublime and magical terms. If leaders endow pipelines with a certain national mystique, then the people may support them as national “infrastructure objects,” to use Putin’s words. Otherwise, citizens may ask: Where is the benefit for us? (Oh, right, it’s in the 16,000 square meters of housing.)

The Germans smoke the (Arctic) pipe 


Griefswald, Germany: Where Russia’s Arctic gas touches down upon the European continent. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Nord Stream terminates in the German city of Greifswald. The coastal Baltic metropolis once belonged to the Hanseatic League, which was etched into the deep recesses of my brain during 10th-grade history class. While the trade alliance of the Middle Ages is most well-known for its activities around the Baltic and North Seas, there is some evidence of its involvement in the “early penetration of the North,” according to German scholar Klaus Friedland.

In a fascinating paper, he suggests that an Icelandic family may have lived in the Westphalian city of Lübeck. Using art and poetry rather than historical documents to base his findings, he determines that members of the “Ysland” family used their connections to import 12 hawks every year from Iceland. Falconry was all the rage in Europe at the time, and the North Atlantic nation was seen as having some of the most prized birds. These hawks were sent to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Recently, the media has fawned over how former president Barack Obama managed to read a bevy of books in office (and even publish a paper in Science). But Frederick II wrote an entire treatise on hawking in his spare time, which is believed to have been the longest written work by any European monarch of his time or prior. In De Arte Venandi cum Avibus [The Art of Hunting with Birds], he proclaimed Icelandic birds to be the best birds, sending European hawkers and bird bandwagoners into a tizzy. The 12 hawks imported from Iceland every year were delivered to the emperor as a sort of duty, in return for which they received enough money to feed cereals 100-200 people for a year.


Hawks – a 13th century Arctic export. From De Arte Venandi cum Avibus

The buck didn’t stop with Frederick II, however. In fact, in the late 1300s, one Lübeck trading company’s bread and butter was transporting Icelandic hawks alive all the way to Alexandria, Egypt via Venice. Much as Queen Elizabeth has her Welsh corgis today, the aristocrats of Alexandria had their hawks.

Hanseatic League members later became involved in other lucrative Arctic commodity trades, like stockfish (cod). Yet today, former Hanseatic league members like Greifswald are turning to the east for northern commodities, namely Russian gas. Und so, while Emperor Frederick II once demanded Arctic commodities in the way of Icelandic hawks, today, Russia’s president is pushing Arctic commodities onto Germany in the form of Russian gas. Coincidentally, Gazprom’s CEO, Alexey Miller, comes from a Russian family of German descent.

Nord Stream II: doubling down the exploitation of Arctic gas

Gazprom is heavily pushing Nord Stream II, a pipeline that would run parallel to the current one. It is highly geopolitically contested, for it could decrease Russia’s dependence on using Eastern European countries as thoroughfares to export its gas to markets in Western Europe. Even without Nord Stream II, Gazprom’s ownership of European gas markets has been rising: it reportedly increased from 31% in 2015 to 34% last year.

In a press release published the other day on Gazprom’s website, Miller expressed,

“The new gas pipeline, Bovanenkovo – Ukhta 2, commissioned today as part of the northern gas transmission corridor, reshapes the geography of gas flows for both domestic supplies and exports. The northern corridor becomes fundamental to gas supplies throughout European Russia and integral to the shortest, most reliable and efficient new route for gas exports to Europe, stretching from Yamal to Germany across the Baltic Sea. It is the Nord Stream 2 project, whose implementation is running on schedule.”

The development of Russia’s Arctic via the exploitation of the Yamal Peninsula is inseparable from the construction of Nord Stream II under the Baltic Sea, thousands of miles away. While the pipelines bring the Arctic closer to Germany, these enormous cylinders of Russian steel cut up the peninsula’s vast reindeer pastures into smaller and smaller parcels. Their construction constricts the mobility of the nomadic indigenous Nenets people, who are already under severe pressure from climate change. As a spokesman for Greenpeace Russia remarked, “Our research shows that the biggest fear nomads have is not global climate change, but the fear of being pushed out of the tundra.”

The pipeline’s impacts on lives and lands at both ends thus prove Putin right: this is not just a pipe.


Nenets reindeer herders on the Yamal Peninsula. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Vestiges of the Berlin Wall in the Arctic

A part of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. © Mia Bennett.

A part of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. © Mia Bennett.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, issuing a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Tear down this wall!” he famously cried. In the autumn of that same year, in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk, Gorbachev made a similar challenge to the world to end the divisions wrought by the Cold War in the Arctic. “Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace,” he proclaimed. “Let the North Pole be a pole of peace.”

Both Reagan and Gorbachev’s visions were made real over the next few years as the Berlin Wall fell down and the Arctic became a peaceful region that fostered multilateral environmental cooperation. The 1990s witnessed both the reunification of Germany and the formation of the Arctic Council. A united Germany even became an Arctic Council observer, and the Port of Hamburg – revitalized by reunification – could one day help connect eastern Germany, the Czech Republic, and beyond to the Northern Sea Route, as I wrote a few months ago.

So on Sunday at the Brandenburg Gate, millions of people celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the wall. But no such celebrations are taking place in the Arctic, for neither Russia nor the West is helping to realize Gorbachev’s vision of the Arctic becoming a zone of peace. In April, for instance, Canada boycotted an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow over objections to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. A new report by the European Leadership Network uncovered nearly 40 instances of “brinkmanship,” or close encounters between Russian and Western forces. I mapped the data provided by the ELN on Google Maps into a polar projection, and the clustering of encounters in the Baltic Sea remains clear. In the Arctic, though, there are also several encounters, mostly near Canada and Alaska and one instance south of Greenland. In the sub-Arctic, a couple other instances occur in the Sea of Okhotsk, though they are not shown in the map below. It was therefore perhaps not surprising that over the weekend at a ceremony in Berlin, Gorbachev warned that the world was on the brink of a new cold war. He intoned, “We must make sure that we get the tensions that have arisen recently under control.”

Gorbachev, as has been widely reported, has accused the United States, the West, and NATO of triumphalism. NATO has continually expanded its footprint east, bringing the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into its fold and undermining Russian desires for a buffer zone along its perimeter. The Baltic states (which, it is worth noting, are occasionally described as “near-Arctic”) have thus lately been no stranger to Russian incursions. An Estonian policeman accused of being a spy was arrested by Russian authorities, with Estonia alleging that he was kidnapped from Estonian territory. A submarine, possibly Russian, was spotted somewhere off of Stockholm around the time that Lithuania’s new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal was making its way to the port of Klaipėda. Russia is probably not thrilled about Lithuania’s new infrastructure, which allows it more flexibility in gas imports, and, importantly, decreases its reliance on Siberian gas. Additionally, unlike many other European countries which have 15- or 30- year gas contracts with Russia, Lithuania’s contracts with Gazprom expire next year, so it will be sooner able to restructure its gas portfolio. The first shipment of LNG from Norway arrived at the end of last month, and Lithuania signed a five-year gas supply deal with Statoil in August that could provide up to 20% of the country’s needs. Norway is undoubtedly the preferred Arctic partner for the republic that was the first to declare independence from the USSR.

September 18: A Day that will live in Arctic infamy?

Map showing close encounters with Russian military forces (source: ) and detention locations for Juros Vilkas and MV Arctic Sunrise. Location of Juros Vilkas is approximate.

Map showing close encounters with Russian military forces (source: European Leadership Network) and detention locations for Juros Vilkas and MV Arctic Sunrise. Location of Juros Vilkas is approximate.

Tensions between Lithuania and Russia, however, are not confined to the Baltic Sea. They have now extended into the Arctic. On September 18, 2014 – exactly one year to the day after Greenpeace’s MV Arctic Sunrise protestors were detained in the Barents Sea for protesting offshore drilling at the Prirazlomnaya rig – the Lithuanian-flagged fishing boat Jūros Vilkas (“Sea Wolf”) was detained by Russian authorities and towed to Murmansk. The ship, owned by Seattle based company Arctic Fishing, was accused of illegally catching 15 tons of snow crab in Russia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). While ships can navigate freely in a country’s EEZ, the sovereign country retains the right to all of the natural resources in the water column and seabed beneath.

Illegal fishing is no small matter in the Arctic (see this WWF document for a brief summary), and it is especially hard to enforce regulations there given the difficult conditions in which coast guards and other enforcement agencies must operate. Yet the issues surrounding Jūros Vilkas’ detention are complex. Supposedly, the ship’s crew thought they had been operating in the “donut hole” – the area of high seas in between the Russian and Norwegian EEZs in the Barents Sea, visible in the map above. In fact, however, the ship had illegally crossed into Russia’s EEZ, whose boundaries changed after the 2010 treaty with Norway to delimit the former “grey zone” in the Barents.

Russia notified the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission of the change, but according to The Baltic Course, the commission did not alert its member states, Lithuania among them, of this development. Alas, the view from Murmansk seems to be that there will be no forgiving buffer zones for wayward ships accused of illegal fishing in the Russian Arctic (even though Russian fishermen have themselves been described as “members of ‘the international mafia‘”). One has to wonder whether any of the Lithuanian and Russian fishermen who were onboard Jūros Vilkas are sitting in the same cells in the Murmansk detention center that the so-called Greenpeace “Arctic 30” occupied for three months beginning one year ago.

Lines in the water

While detaining a foreign ship for illegal fishing is common practice around the world, Jūros Vilkas is being held in Murmansk on a bail of 2.25 million euros – an amount some might say is unreasonable since it is two to three times the value of the ship. Furthermore, last year, Chinese processors were buying snow crab from Alaska for around $5 a pound. If prices are comparable in the Barents, then the Lithuanian vessel’s total 15-ton catch, however illegal, was worth only $150,000.

The actions of the Russian coast guard fit the larger logic of Russia’s tough defense of its borders and, importantly, natural resources. When Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise was detained and its members prosecuted in court, the NGO’s executive director called it stiffest response his organization had encountered from a government since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. Soon after Arctic Sunrise’s detentionRussian President Vladimir Putin signed a law allowing oil and gas corporations to establish their own private security forces to defend their infrastructure.

Today, there are thousands of segments of the Berlin Wall on display around the world. According to the head of a German NGO devoted to the Berlin Wall’s remembrance, it is “the only monument that exists on all continents,” except possibly Antarctica.” [1] But the real question we should be asking is not where those concrete slabs are displayed. Rather, the question is, where are the invisible traces of the Wall?

The answer, sadly and increasingly, seems to be in the Arctic.


[1] The Economist. The Berlin Wall: Twenty-five years on.” (Nov. 8, 2014)

NASA Satellite Imagery Reveals the Arctic at Night

Composite image of night lights in the Arctic, as imaged in April and October 2012 by SUOMI NPP's Day/Night Band. Data downloaded from NASA Earth Observatory.

Composite image of night lights above 60°N (with the Arctic Circle also included for reference), as imaged in April and October 2012 with SUOMI NPP’s Day/Night Band. Data downloaded from NASA Earth Observatory. Click for full resolution.

In winter, the Arctic is considered to be a dark and dreary place save for when the northern lights shimmer and cascade across the polar skies. Yet even on a night when the aurora borealis are not putting on their performance, many parts of the Arctic are still brightly illuminated. Thanks to the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite, jointly operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and put successfully into orbit on October 28, 2011, we can now see this in spectacular detail. 

Whereas many phenomena in the Arctic were previously difficult for satellites to image in wintertime due to the lack of daylight, SUOMI NPP’s Day/Night Band can clearly detect manmade and natural developments, like shipping, oil and gas development, and sea ice break-up at night, with or without lunar illumination. Its resolution is a little bit coarse – 750 meters – but its sensitivity is impressive, allowing it to detect light from a source as small as a street lamp. You may have seen some images from the satellite already, such as of the Nile Delta aglow or of the Korean Peninsula, where the contrast in artificial lighting between the two countries is as stark as day and night.

The image at the top of this post, a composite of cloud-free images taken in April and October 2012, depicts the earth north of 60°N, with the Arctic Circle included for reference as well. I downloaded the GeoTIFFs from NASA Earth Observatory and displayed them in ArcMap using the Polar Azimuthal Equal Area projection.

NorwayNightLights Norway’s well-developed Arctic coastline bustles with activity from the Lofoten Islands, past  Hammerfest and around the North Cape (Nordkapp). The lights then continue along Russia’s northwest coastline on the Kola Peninsula. Here, the city of Murmansk – the largest north of the Arctic Circle – forms a distinct point of light.

Iceland, too, has lots of activity around its coasts, especially near Reykjavik. However, south of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s ice cap, there is a desolate stretch of dark coastline, where the unforgiving sandur – glacial sands – stretch out to sea. In Canada, a few places twinkle in the Northwest Passage and along the Dempster Highway leading from Whitehorse to Tuktoyaktuk, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

Greenland is dark save for a tiny spot of light at Nuuk, its capital. The shape of the island overall, however, is visible thanks to the reflectivity of its ice cap. Ice reflects moonlight more readily than water, which is why in the above image, polar sea ice has a lighter shade of blue than the surrounding ocean. This phenomenon, the albedo effect, is the same reason why as the ice shrinks, less sunlight is reflected back into space. Instead, more is absorbed by the darker seas, which in turn expand and warm.

UrengoyNightLightsBut the places that blaze most brilliantly of all are the oil and gas production sites. Alaska’s North Slope appears brighter than even the big cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks. In Russia, the sources of light don’t seem to correspond at all with where the population centers are. Looking at this image, one might think that northwest Siberia was full of cities jammed up tight against one another. In fact, these are the lights of the Urengoy gas field, the second largest in the world. NASA already removed the gas flares from the composite image during processing, meaning that these are just the lights from places like camps and small settlements built around the hubs of industrial activity. Were the gas flares to be included, Urengoy would appear even brighter. Russia is the world’s biggest practicer of this wasteful activity, used to burn off natural gas produced during oil extraction that cannot be consumed or exported. It costs the country some $5 billion annually, according to the World Bank.

Sadly, all of these artificial sources of light emitted from the ground can make it impossible to see the aurora. Skyscrapers and neon billboards glitter in global metropolises like New York City or Tokyo, but only a handful of stars are visible in the sky. Just as the Manhattan skyline will never compare to the Milky Way, I doubt the gas flares and bright lights of Urengoy will ever hold a candle to the northern lights. To see them in their full glory, you need to go somewhere unspoiled by artificial lighting. While it’s easier to find pitch black conditions in the Arctic than in most other regions in the world, the image above is a reminder that even places we think are wild and unpopulated – like northwest Russia – are often blindingly lit.

SUOMI NPP is so sensitive to low light that it can even detect swaths of bioluminscent plankton, which sometimes grace the Arctic’s seas. But I’m not sure if there’s any consolation in the fact that even though we can now manufacture satellites that detect everything from aurora to bioluminescence, we’ve become less able to see these phenomena from our earthly perches.

The aurora as viewed from Å, Lofoten, Norway. © Mia Bennett, January 2013.

The aurora as viewed on a dark night from Å, Lofoten, Norway. © Mia Bennett, January 2013.