Fly me to the moon: Prudhoe Bay from above

Deadhorse, Alaska

Deadhorse, Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The place where polar bears butt heads with the petroleum industry – literally. “If a bear’s spotted, work’s usually called off for the day,” a man in Barrow, 200 miles to the west, told me. Oil workers try to scare away the bear – sometimes a polar bear, sometimes a grizzly – and condition it so that it doesn’t come back in search of food.


On my recent trip to Alaska, I didn’t have the chance to stop in bear-battled Prudhoe or nearby Deadhorse, which houses the airport, lodging, and store for the oil workers. Deadhorse is also the end of the Dalton Highway, which starts north of Fairbanks some 400-odd miles to the south. I did, however, get to fly in and out of Prudhoe Bay airport, which in winter appears to miraculously emerge out of the white tundra.

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Ascending out of Anchorage over the Talkeetna Mountains.

Flying from Anchorage, our airplane soared over the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range. I dozed off soon after the snow-capped peaks transitioned into the relatively flat white plains of the Yukon-Tanana Uplands. When I woke up an hour later, the packed Alaska Airlines flight was descending into Deadhorse, laden with cargo for the winter construction season. The seats that would normally take up the front half of the airplane are replaced with a cargo hold on the airline’s 737-400 Combi planes. Winter is the big construction season in Prudhoe Bay because it’s the only time of year when the ground is solid and snow-covered. This permits driving on the tundra without permanently damaging it.

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Sitting on the tarmac of the moon. Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport. Photo: Mia Bennett

I looked at the view from my window seat and felt like we were descending onto another planet. It was a clear day and the sun bounced off the spindly network of chrome-colored pipes that criss-cross the North Slope. Straight, unwavering pipelines cut across meandering frozen rivers. All of the infrastructure out here is built on manmade gravel pads, for nothing can sit directly on top of the shifting permafrost, which thaws and refreezes every year. In this part of the world, gravel is almost more valuable than oil. The tiny rocks we take for granted down south are in short supply up north. No construction or excavation can happen without gravel.

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Straight pipelines intersect with meandering rivers in Prudhoe Bay in winter. Photo: Mia Bennett

The gray gravel pads are all but invisible in winter, however, and instead, the hundreds of miles of pipelines seem to stretch magically across the landscape. It is beautiful in its own way. Human ingenuity (or idiocy, depending on your point of view) has transformed an area that was once primarily used for local subsistence by the Inupiat people into a export-oriented resource frontier by dredging up the ancient seabed underlying the North Slope.

Prudhoe Bay is North America’s largest oil field. The extent of this industrial moonscape blew me away. It measures some 213,543 acres, or approximately 15 by 40 miles. That’s more than double the size of New York City and still significantly larger than Los Angeles. We flew over the oil field for a good long while before the platforms and pipelines faded into the west. Out here in mid-winter, it was impossible to tell where the tundra turned into the ocean, for both were frozen solid.

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Taking off again from Prudhoe Bay airport, headed east towards Barrow.

“In space we read time,” reflects German historian Karl Schlögel. Above Prudhoe Bay, I felt as if I was witnessing modernity in all its silver-plated excesses. The sight was all the more jarring having come from Anchorage, where I had wandered down the old main street and read about the bustling heydey of a past boom centered around the construction of the Alaska Railway. Faded murals and maps of the “Last Frontier” were the chief reminders of this wealthy era in the city’s history. Up in Prudhoe, what will this extreme edge of the rush for Alaska’s resources look like when the oil runs dry? Abandoned pipelines and platforms might then no longer epitomize a future-forward modernity, but rather a rusty past.

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The main drag in Anchorage, where curio shops have replaced saloons and even a Japanese restaurant that bustled during the construction of the Alaska Railway.

Tillerson’s hearing: Would U.S.-Russia partnership worsen Arctic climate?

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A protester disrupts ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State.

At today’s Senate confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, expected topics like Russia, nuclear weapons, and Mexico came up. Climate change did, too, but the Arctic received short shrift. In searching the transcript of the lengthy proceedings, I found that the region was only mentioned twice: once by a protester and once by the oilman himself.

Yet even though it was little mentioned, the Arctic possesses a broader connection to the global issues that were discussed at the hearing, particularly the possibility of improved relations between the U.S. and Russia if Tillerson, a recipient of the Russian Order of Friendship is confirmed as Secretary of State. If the U.S. and Russia partner together in developing Russia’s offshore reserves, this could exacerbate global warming and the melting of the Arctic – a point that a protester made loudly clear above the calm and calculated voices of the senators in the room.

At one point, as Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) was pressing Tillerson hard on Russia, a “RejectRexx” protestor interjected and unfurled a banner. The woman yelled, “Why is Tillerson friends with Putin? Because they both want to drill and burn the Arctic. That will ruin the climate and destroy the future for our children and grandchildren. Please don’t put Exxon in charge of the State Department. Protect our children and grandchildren – please don’t put Exxon in charge of the State Department.”

The protester was escorted out of the building, but her observation regarding the shared interests of Putin and ExxonMobil are correct. Both the Russian state and multinational corporation want to exploit the Russian Arctic’s supposedly vast reserves of oil and gas. Sanctions, however, have halted the pursuit of a joint project between ExxonMobil and Russian-state owned oil company Rosneft. This point, a rather sore one for ExxonMobil, came up later in the discussion when chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-Texas), asked whether ExxonMobil had lobbied against the sanctions.

Tillerson responded:

“I never lobbied against the sanctions. To my knowledge, ExxonMobil never lobbied against the sanctions. ExxonMobil participated in understanding how the sanctions were going to be constructed and was asked and provided information regarding how those might impact American business interests.

The only engagement I had really came after the sanctions were in place. ExxonMobil was in the middle of drilling a well in a very remote part of the Russian Arctic in the Kara Sea, several hundred miles way from any safe harbor. When the sanctions went into place because of the way they were written, they took immediate effect. There was no grace period, there was no grandfathering period. And I engaged immediately with the State Department and with Treasury and OFAC to explain to them that there was significant risk to people and the environment if  – and we were going to comply with the sanctions, fully comply – but that compliance meant immediate evacuation of all these people, which was going to put lives at risk and the environment at risk because this was a wildcat exploration well that was at a very delicate position at the time. [We] provided a lot of technical information to OFAC and the State Department [and I was] thankful that it took about five days for them to understand that.

ExxonMobil stood still while they were evaluating that, and, in the end, did grab a temporary license to allow that work to be completed safely so that we could get all the people then out of the country and get all of the equipment that was subject to sanctions out of the country, including the rig. That was my direct engagement, really dealing with an effect of the sanctions. So the characterization that ExxonMobil lobbied against the sanctions is really not accurate.”

Playing Russian roulette with global climate

ExxonMobil may or may not have specifically lobbied against sanctions. But it’s clearly in the company’s long-term economic interest to drill in Russia and to drill in the Arctic, two activities which would inevitably add to global carbon emissions and exacerbate climate change. Thus, it’s pretty hard to imagine that Tillerson, as Secretary of State, would continue the Obama administration’s legacy of getting big climate agreements signed.

Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass) expressed, “The world expects us to be the leader on climate change. Please give us those assurances, that you will guarantee that the State Department will be the leader as it has been in advancing a climate agenda for our country.”

Tillerson gave no such assurances, as Emily Dreyfuss wrote in an article for WiredHe didn’t even confirm that he believes humans are causing climate change.

He was, however, more forthcoming regarding his hopes for a rehabilitation of relations between the U.S. and Russia. Tillerson felt that Russia is “predictable” in its activities, as they are “very calculating, very strategic in their thinking, and they have developed a plan,” he claimed. “There is scope to define a different relationship that can bring down the temperature around the conflicts we have today,” added the Texan native.

The irony is that if cooling the temperature of the U.S.-Russia relationship leads to a lifting of sanctions and a resumption of joint exploration of Arctic offshore oil, it could raise the planet’s thermostat. This potential chain of events adds another dimension to the Arctic paradox. Generally, this catchphrase describes the fact that as climate change melts the Arctic ice cap and jeopardizes northern ways of life, it opens up more opportunities for economic activities like oil drilling and shipping that will further destabilize the climate.

Now, a new twist to this paradox is that if relations between the U.S. and Russia are improved under a Trump administration with pro-oil Tillerson at the helm of the State Department, this could worsen the outlook for the global climate. A lot of positives could come out of improved relations between these two countries, but playing Russian roulette with the global climate by drilling in the Arctic isn’t one of them.

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Perhaps all that may be left of the frozen landscapes of the Russian Arctic one day will be photographs, like this one on display in Moscow in summer 2015. Photo: Author.

Arctic oil: Russia pushes north as U.S. blocks Alaska leasing

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Russian President Vladimir Putin announces the first shipment from the Novoportovskoye field earlier this year. Photo: en.kremlin.ru.

While the U.S. Department of the Interior announced earlier this month that it would hold off on leasing areas in the Alaskan offshore for the foreseeable future, Russia is moving full steam ahead in developing Arctic oil. This difference reflect’s the current U.S. administration’s bearish stance on Arctic fossil fuels, whereas the Russian government is bullish.

The U.S. government has just enacted a policy that will prevent Arctic drilling until 2022 at a maximum, though possibly shorter if the Trump administration tries to re-write the leasing plan. In contrast, the Russian government has put in place several strategies since 2008 directed at boosting its Arctic oil production. Most recently, the Russian Energy Strategy up to 2035 aims to increase energy production in the Arctic so that by 2035, Arctic offshore resources account for 5% of national oil extraction and 10% of national gas extraction (1). While the government placed a 10-year moratorium on new Arctic offshore leases in September 2016, a significant number of leases have already been issued, as the map below illustrates.

A map of oil leases in the Russian Arctic.

A map of oil leases in the Russian Arctic. Green = Rosneft, red = Gazprom, orange = Lukoil, yellow = others. Source: Ecology and Life.

In line with the government’s strategies, this month, Russian oil company Gazprom Neft announced that it would begin sea trials of a non-nuclear icebreaker called Alexander Sannikov. The ship is designed to support oil exploration and oil spill response in the extreme Arctic. Named after a lieutenant general who served in the Russian Imperial Army in the early 20th century, the vessel was recently completed at a shipyard near St. Petersburg and is the first of its kind. Alexander Sannikov will accompany oil tankers sailing along the Northern Sea Route in winter and ensure year-round export from the marine terminal “Gates of the Arctic” at Novy Port on the Yamal Peninsula, which is the fast-growing heart of the Russian Arctic oil industry. Novy Port’s first shipment of oil in winter took place in February 2015. The Gates of the Arctic terminal can operate in -50°C and in ice up to two meters thick, according to Gazprom. The company claims it also “meets the most stringent requirements in the field of industrial safety and environmental protection.

On the Yamal Peninsula, Gazprom Neft has big plans for the Novoportovskoye field, which just opened this year. The company plans to increase its oil production from 2.5 million tons this year to 5.5 million tons in 2016 and 8.5 million tons in 2017. According to Russian news agency TASS, Vadim Yakovlev expressed that “the commercial exploitation of Novoportovskoye field heralds a new, northernmost gas province, which is unique in exploitation, infrastructure, and transportation.” The oil will be shipped out of Novy Port, which appears to have laid relatively dormant in satellite imagery from 1985 until 2015. As shown below, the pipeline from the Novoportovskoye field to the port on the Gulf of Ob appears to have been laid in just one year.

Construction of oil infrastructure near Novy Port, Yamal Peninsula, Russia.

Six years of construction (2011-2016) of oil infrastructure near Novy Port, Yamal Peninsula, Russia as viewed in Google Earth.

Icebreakers like Alexander Sannikov and a similar vessel under construction, Andrey Vilkitsky, exemplify the Russian state’s belief in the importance of developing state-of-the-art technology to exploit Russia’s Arctic resources. Alexander Dybal, a board member of Gazprom Neft, offered, “The majority of Russia’s offshore fields, which are located close to shore and were exported by sea in the 20th century, could not be built or operated because there were no such new technologies. Only the technology of the 21st century, embodied by technologies such as this icebreaker, permit the extraction of oil in the Arctic.”

Similar ideas were expressed over the past few days at the Arctic Days conference in Moscow, sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Minister Sergei Donskoy, echoed Russian government strategy in the Arctic by affirming, “The Arctic is one of the territories whose development is of key importance for the country and requires the creation of a strong technological base.” (Side note: The conference’s slogan, “Arctic – Energy of the Future!” is oddly not included on the English-language version of the website.)

Unpaid oil workers go on hunger strike in Yamal

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Screenshot of the Novaya Gazeta article. The graffiti on the pipeline reads, “Where’s my money?”

It’s not all smooth sailing in the Russian Arctic. On the Yamal Peninsula, employees of several companies associated with the oil and gas industry have gone on a hunger strike in Novy Port, where the temperature is currently -25°C. Approximately 700 workers are now on strike, with some having refused to eat for 10 days. Workers claim that they have toiled in slave labor conditions without receiving payment, with one person alleging to have been paid in 10 cans of corned beef. The situation is now under investigation by regional reporters. According to their report,

  • PurGazStroy (roughly translated as Pure Gas Construction) owes 22 million rubles ($337,195) in salary to 157 employees;
  • Promindustriia (~Industrial) owes 38 million rubles ($582,427) to 330 employees;
  • and TRUST SevZapSpetsStroyMontazh (~Northwest Special Construction) owes 3 million rubles ($45,981) to 80 employees.

The burgeoning industry on the Yamal Peninsula has attracted many workers from across Russia. Russian journalist Tatiana Britske writes in her investigative report in Novaya Gazeta (in Russian):

“Thousands of men moved from all over Russia for a simple reason: loans, family, no work. Northern construction – oil and the military, promising good money, became, as once, a decoy for those who wanted to escape from the swamp. But unlike the Komsomol and the Romantic era of the development of the Far North, a trip to the edge of the earth now increasingly turns slavery.”

Many in the West might conceive of communist development of the Soviet Arctic as a miserable time of gulags and forced labor. But in fact, many Russians willingly moved to the North in search of adventure and to be part of a great mission to develop the region. The government leveraged the enthusiasm of these young people, who often joined the Komsomol (a political youth organization), to carry out the enormous tasks of building infrastructure across the Russian North. It’s remarkable to see how contemporary development of the Russian Arctic is negatively contrasted with the communist era.

A building in Mirny City, Sakha Republic, Russia that remembers the efforts of the Komsomol. Photo: Cryopolitics.

A building in Mirny City, Sakha Republic, Russia that remembers the efforts of the Komsomol. Photo: Cryopolitics.

The comments on the Novaya Gazeta article reveal the deep frustration among some Russians with the oil and gas industry. A commenter named Igor wrote:

“The only thing that feeds the whole country – oil and gas. Nothing else is done, but only produced, sold, and are displayed in the offshore companies to buy cellos and yachts. The only industry – the core of the entire economy at large, and then manage to overcome it and throw workers … Even those who with their own hands creates the possibility that at least some of the infusion is not part of the embezzled money to the budget and that of the people do not believe that the … we talk about the rest.”

Alaska’s Arctic Oil: Frozen for another five years

2017-2022 Oil and Gas Leasing Proposed Final Program Area for the Cook Inlet. If the plan holds, no Arctic offshore leases in Alaska will be sold over the next five years.

2017-2022 Oil and Gas Leasing Proposed Final Program Area for the Cook Inlet. If the plan holds, no Arctic offshore leases in Alaska will be sold over the next five years.

While Russia’s “black gold” continues to be dredged up from the Arctic offshore, Alaska’s will likely sit in the ground for a few years yet. A press release from the Department of the Interior concerning the Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Plan for 2017-2022 delivered the bad news for the many people in Alaska whose livelihoods depend on the industry’s growth. Only a small area around Cook Inlet, on Alaska’s southern coast, will be up for lease. The DOI justified its exclusion of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from its five-year lease sales plan as follows:

Alaska: Considering the fragile and unique Arctic ecosystem and the recent demonstrated decline in industry interest, the Proposed Final Program does not include any lease sales in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas.  Based on consideration of the best available science and significant public input, the Department’s analysis identified significant risks to sensitive marine resources and communities from potential new leasing in the Arctic. Moreover, due to the high costs associated with exploration and development in the Arctic and the foreseeable low projected oil prices environment, demonstrated industry interest in new leasing currently is low.

In making this decision, the DOI went against the wishes of most of Alaska’s politicians and residents. The voices of the pro-oil contingent in Alaska are made clear in a summary of the 3.3 million comments submitted to the DOI during their public consultation on plans for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) for 2017-2022. Here are a few examples:

  • Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski: “The Senator requests increasing the number of lease sales in the Cook Inlet and the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in the Arctic, and to include a minimum of three Alaskan lease sales. The Senator also requests any additional withdrawals not move forward without the support of Alaskans. According to the Senator, utilizing the oil reserves off the coast of Alaska would provide energy security and a bright economic future for Alaska and the Nation.”
  • Alaska Department of Natural Resources: “The commenter requests making leases in the Beaufort Sea, Cook Inlet, and Chukchi Sea available as soon as possible. The commenter suggests that the current plan is limiting economic opportunity for the region and the United States. The commenter requests a plan that ensures timely and predictable access to Alaska’s highly prospective OCS lands.”
  • Alaska’s NANA Regional Corporation (Lance Miller) (an Alaska Native regional corporation): “The commenter states support for development of oil and gas off the shore of Alaska, and states opposition to any additional restrictions for the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. The commenter suggests that development in these areas will help provide jobs to the area and locals can incorporate traditional knowledge of the land and water to help carry out monitoring. The commenter encourages collaboration between the Bureau and native Alaskan populations in any further plans for exploration or development in the Arctic Sea.”
  • Alaska Trucking Association: “The commenter states support for all proposed leasing areas in Alaska. The commenter asserts that the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are rich in oil, and the United States should take advantage of this natural resource to support job creation and increase American energy security. The commenter concludes that advances in drilling technology allow for safe drilling with minimal environmental impact.”

The few stakeholders that spoke out against drilling in the Alaskan Arctic were the marine Mammal Commission, which “requests the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas be deferred from leasing in the 2017-2022 Program, as these areas are undergoing rapid change due to climate change and marine habitat should be monitored without the presence of oil and gas drilling,” and a number of environmental non-profit organizations including the Alaska Wilderness League and Greenpeace. A letter put together by the organizations and signed by 15,866 signatories also expressed opposition for similar reasons. Until January 20, they can rest easy that there will be no federal government support for U.S. Arctic offshore drilling.

Unclear path ahead for Arctic oil

The Russian Arctic oil industry enjoys the strong support of federal and regional governments but faces a weak global market for oil and unrest among its workers. Alaskan Arctic oil enjoys strong support from both the state’s political elite and the general public, but faces the same weak global market and a federal government opposed to Arctic drilling. Yet the calculus for drilling in the Alaskan Arctic may change with the Trump administration. An editorial published over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal urged:

“Mr. Obama says there’s no reason to drill in the Arctic because oil prices are so low, as if the government can predict energy prices five or 10 years from now. The Arctic region is thought to hold 90 billion barrels of oil, and up to 30% of the world’s untapped natural gas. Exploration and drilling would create thousands of jobs, and most resources lie in relatively shallow waters fewer than 100 meters deep…More than 85% of area offshore controlled by the federal government is closed to exploration. Mr. Trump can unlock this potential, which would be a gusher for global consumers and American economic growth.”

While Arctic oil may lie in shallow waters, they are extremely risky and dangerous. Russia’s government and industry leaders appear to recognize that the region presents unique challenges to drilling. That is why the country, which already has more infrastructure in the North than any other Arctic state, has poured money into developing technologies to allow it to overcome thick sea ice and insanely cold temperatures. The investment in homegrown technologies is also a response to the U.S. and E.U. sanctions.

In the U.S., there is a strange and pervasive notion among industry boosters that drilling in the Arctic will not be all too different from anywhere as else. The belief that drilling in Alaska’s offshore will be easy once supposedly onerous regulations are lifted is worrisome. It may mean that once companies receive permission to drill, they will rush in unprepared and overconfident – although for now, the low price of oil may still remain a barrier without major subsidies from the U.S. or Alaskan governments.

Come January, Trump’s administration may engender more cooperation between Russian and U.S. companies in the Arctic offshore. At an international level, this could improve political and economic relations between the two countries. Yet as the Arctic oil industry grows, more conflicts below the international level are likely to arise between industry, labor, government, indigenous peoples, and environmental organizations. And despite the narrative promoted by the U.S. media that the country is so very different from Russia, the hunger strike by unpaid oil workers in Yamal and the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, where police used water cannons in freezing temperatures against demonstrators, suggest that the U.S. and Russia may share more in common than is typically believed.

Source

Gritsenko, D. (2016). Vodka on ice? Unveiling Russian media perceptions of the Arctic. Energy Research & Social Science, 16, 8-12.