Russian icebreaker and research vessel Kapitan Dranitsyn in the Arctic Ocean, north of western Russia in September 2006. Photo: NOAA Climate Program Office
Global climate change affects the Arctic region more than any other part of the world – the Arctic is warming up to seven times faster than mid-latitudes.1) While eco-activists and environmental organizations point out that this process is a threat to the whole world, oil and gas companies see a great opportunity in developing their offshore projects on the continental shelf due to several reasons. Firstly, the melting of glaciers and sea ice provides access to the new oil and gas fields2) that are estimated to account for 5.3 percent and 21.7 percent of the global proved oil and gas reserves.3) Secondly, a longer ice-free period reduces the costs of exploration and production activities.4) Thus, the Arctic has a potential for hydrocarbon’s energy development and hence the problem of affiliated pollution is acute.
Scientific research is mostly concerned with the remote sources of Arctic pollution. However, the ongoing oil and gas extraction on the Arctic continental shelf has already had a devastating impact on the composition of the Arctic atmosphere. One of the main sources of Arctic air pollution is gas flaring – the practice of burning associated gas, a common byproduct of oil extraction. The joint study of Norwegian, Finnish, and Russian scholars concluded that in the Arctic region gas flaring contributes to a much larger share of total black carbon emissions: in fact, it accounts for 42 percent of all Arctic black carbon surface concentrations, when the global average is only 3 percent.5) It is essential to highlight that the method of gas flaring is used at the Prirazlomnoye field, the only Russian project on the Arctic shelf.6) In 2021 140.57 million m3 were flared on the Prirazlomnaya offshore platform.7) The pollutants released during the gas flaring and other oil and gas exploration activities on the Arctic shelf facilitate the warming of this region, which has implications for the biodiversity in the area and the lives of at least 5 million people,8) including the Indigenous peoples. Therefore, the issue of the pollution related to oil and gas extraction on the Arctic shelf is worth consideration.
The search for oil and gas deposits in the continental sector of the Russian Arctic started almost a century ago. In 1930, the world’s first oil field in the Arctic, Chibyuskoye, was discovered in the Komi Republic and its development started immediately. In 1935, new extraction methods for the Arctic hydrocarbon reserves were tested for the first time at a large Yareg deposit. At the same time, oil prospecting was organized in the eastern regions of the Soviet Arctic, in the north of Siberia. Consequently, in 1948, the Scientific Research Institute of Arctic Geology was established in Leningrad.9)
A decade later oil searches were also launched in Alaska, the USA. The first small deposits were discovered on land at the turn of the 1940s-1950s: Barrow (gas field) – in 1949, Umiat (oil) – in 1950. In 1965, the Poinot Thompson oil and gas field was discovered and mothballed without exploration. The deposit was explored only in 1977 and turned out to be gigantic: its reserves amounted to 3 trillion m3 of gas and 400 million tons of oil. The first offshore field of Gwydir Bay on the northern shelf of Alaska was discovered in 1969. The largest offshore fields on this shelf are Endicott (80 million tons of oil) and Point McIntyre (83 million tons of oil and 17 billion m3 of gas).10)
Today, Russia is among the three world leaders in hydrocarbon production and more than 90 percent of all its gas and about 10 percent of its oil come from deposits in the Russian Arctic. In 2014 The Gazprom Neft Oil Company began developing the field in the Pechora Sea and exploring the large Dolginsky oil field, which is located 110 km from the mainland coast. On the other hand, the USA joined this “hydrocarbon race” in the Arctic and gave an impetus to offshore oil production in 1987. Currently, there are 9 fields at the Endicott deposit being developed. In other words, the oil and gas extraction on the Arctic continental shelf is becoming a matter of national energy security for both countries.11)
Common features of Russian and American approaches to the problem
Increased attention to the oil and gas resources of the Arctic has been observed since the mid-2000s, after the publication of data on the hydrocarbon potential of the United States. While oil prices were rising, “Arctic optimism” reigned everywhere, and large-scale oil production in the Arctic was expected to start soon. At that time, the political aspect was strong in Russian plans for the development of the Arctic shelf: Russia sought to prove that it was an energy power capable of creating a hydrocarbon province in the polar seas to replace the aging Western Siberia.
After 2014, Russian oilmen began to reduce plans for oil production in the Arctic seas. Under the conditions of sanctions and low prices, the relevant ministries began to perceive the prospects for the development of the northern shelf more realistically.12) Thus, they indirectly admit that Russia is not ready for environmentally safe development of the Arctic region, especially in the polar seas located east of the Urals. Many experts and oil companies have previously taken a balanced view of the possibility of large-scale oil production in the polar seas, pointing out that Russia has not yet exhausted the potential of the old regions. After all, Arctic waters are very different. It is worrying that the draft Energy Strategy of Russia until 2035 says: “development of the hydrocarbon potential of the continental shelf of the Arctic seas and northern territories is the most important geopolitical and technological challenge for the oil and gas complex of Russia”13) while forgetting about the environmental challenge, which is equally important in this region.
In 2016, the Ministry of Natural Resources introduced a temporary moratorium on the issuance of offshore production licenses until the obligations under already issued licenses are fulfilled.14) But in August 2018, the Ministry of Natural Resources opposed the lifting of the moratorium on the issuance of Arctic licenses, indirectly confirming that Russia no longer seeks intensive development of offshore hydrocarbons in the Arctic. It seems that the strategic priorities of the government are shifting towards the hydrocarbon potential of the land.
In 2016, the governments of Canada and the United States issued a joint statement announcing a permanent ban on drilling new oil and gas wells in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. The ban covers vast areas off the coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea and almost the entire Beaufort Sea. Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a joint statement that the ban is to protect the Arctic economy and ecosystem.15) The US President explained that even the highest safety standards cannot protect the region from oil spills, while cleanup opportunities are limited due to natural conditions. Obama used a 1953 law that allows the President of the United States to restrict drilling and mining in some regions. This law does not provide that the president can lift the already imposed restrictions. It was difficult for the administration of President-elect Donald Trump to lift the ban imposed by Obama, for this, it was necessary to challenge such an interpretation in the courts. Trump, who replaced Obama, had high hopes for Alaska. He allowed offshore oil production by canceling four documents signed by his predecessor.
And the 46th American leader, Joseph Biden, immediately imposed a moratorium on the lease of oil and gas sites. Joe Biden has made it clear that the environment is among the priorities of his administration. Biden’s plan to combat global warming includes three important aspects that are also significant for Russia: achieving a 100% clean energy economy by 2050, integrating climate change into US foreign policy, as well as concerning trade, developing a low-carbon manufacturing sector in every state.16) Stability in the Arctic is important not only from the point of view of environmental protection or energy development, but also for security reasons, and the United States will not take this issue lightly.17) Instead of viewing these efforts as a threat to its national interests, Moscow could direct its influence in the Arctic towards resolving contradictions and combating climate change. Already today, the EU is discussing the introduction of duties on carbon dioxide emissions and possible mechanisms for their regulation, which will also affect Russia.18)
According to V. Chuprov (Greenpeace Russia Energy Program Manager), Russia is also realizing that oil and gas production on the shelf of the Arctic seas is an economically and technologically overwhelming task. The latest version of the Energy Strategy of Russia until 2035 puts projects for the development of the Arctic beyond the horizon of 2035. Russian geologists clearly say that oil production at depths of more than 40-50 meters in ice conditions is impossible with current technologies.19)
There is a serious problem in international relations caused by Russia’s actions in Ukraine that may stall progress in the Arctic region. Oil instruction in the north will become more active since the EU is moving away from Russia’s oil and gas, and Norway plans to provide energy to Europe, exploiting more of the Arctic’s resources.20) U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are boycotting any meeting on the topics of climate change and the Arctic and have put a pause on Arctic Council activities.21) Given these events, the question of “Arctic exceptionalism” arises – the idea of prioritizing the safety of the environment over political disagreements in other areas.22)
Current state of the problem
Meanwhile, oil and petroleum products pollute the environment on a large scale, as they are characterized by great mobility. Every year, the area of damaged land increases by 10,000 hectares. According to some experts, only during the construction of the main pipeline, 500 hectares of damaged land are accounted for every 100 km of the route.23) At the same time, the rate of restoration of local plant communities in the Arctic is significantly lower than in more southern regions, and technologies for recultivation of polluted lands are ineffective. In addition, in practice, reclamation is carried out only along existing roads and does not affect the territories located outside the roadside sections.
Often there is not a real reclamation, but its imitation: the oil-filled areas are sprinkled with sand, after which the oil remains in the soil, getting into groundwater and freshwater reservoirs, and then into the Arctic Ocean. Only with river runoff, several hundred thousand tons of petroleum products are annually carried into the seas of the Arctic Ocean. As a result, the concentration of pollutants in many areas of the Barents, White, Kara, and Laptev Seas is already 2-3 times higher than normal.24)
The development of liquid hydrocarbon deposits on the Arctic shelf of Russia continues. In the period up to 2025, the volume of oil production at the Prirazlomnoye field is expected to increase to 5 million tons. In the period up to 2030, in an optimistic scenario, oil production will be established at the Dolginsky field, as well as, possibly, at 1-2 more offshore fields. Also, in the period up to 2025, geological exploration is planned at the licensed sites. At least 10 operating license areas for the development of hydrocarbon raw materials are located in the Pechora Sea. The licenses issued are designed for a period up to 2025-2046. The total recoverable resources of 10 license areas in the Pechora Sea may amount to about 600 million tons of oil and 161 billion cubic meters of gas. At the same time, most of the license areas contain mainly oil deposits.25)
The elimination of oil spills in ice conditions is a separate issue, which many environmentalists and designers are currently working on. The issue is extremely acute due to the difficulties that arise during the liquidation of oil in an ice environment and at subzero temperatures. After all, the use becomes impossible if the oil gets under the ice cover. To solve this issue, further research is needed with the use of empirical studies, based on which new technical methods of oil collection will be developed or existing ones will be improved.
Implications for biodiversity and Indigenous peoples
The Arctic contains some of the world’s largest untapped oil and gas reserves. However, oil extraction poses a considerable risk to Arctic ecosystems and communities. Exploration, drilling, and offshore oil production can threaten the fish and marine mammals that Arctic Indigenous peoples depend on. If their number is decreasing, then the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic will face grave challenges with secure access to food. Whales and other marine mammals are exposed to harmful underwater noise that prevents them from navigating, finding mates, and foraging in the dark Arctic waters.26) Marine ecosystems in the Arctic are particularly vulnerable to oil spills from explosions, pipeline leaks, or shipping accidents.
The lack of infrastructure and the remoteness of the Arctic means that spill response could take days or weeks. The Arctic has short summers, low temperatures, and limited sunlight, so Arctic Ocean ecosystems could take decades to recover from damage.27)
The development of oil and gas fields can also harm fisheries and tourism. Furthermore, the cost of drilling oil wells in the Arctic does not bring economic benefits. Responsibility for cleaning and accidents is high compared to the return on investment, and the benefits to Arctic communities are small. At the moment, Arctic governments are subsidizing oil and gas production rather than investing these funds in a renewable future.
Arctic oil and gas production contributes even more to the climate crisis due to increased greenhouse gas emissions. The Arctic states currently have one of the world’s largest carbon footprints. They accounted for over 21 percent of global CO2 emissions in 2016.28)
Measures to resolve the issue
Solving the problem of oil spills in the Arctic, where the elimination of pollution is not only difficult, but sometimes impossible, where the restoration of ecosystems is much slower, and the onset of irreversible consequences is more likely, is possible only by eliminating the cause. And where this is not possible, it is necessary to establish a full-fledged system of rescue and rehabilitation of animals affected by oil pollution.29) Protecting the biodiversity of the Arctic region is possible by targeted habitat protection, scaring and preventive trapping of birds, and also by promoting the restoration of populations affected by oil pollution. One solution is the creation of nature reserves and other types of specially protected natural areas. Rehabilitation centers for birds are already in use, for example in the Northern Caspian.30) Although the center functions successfully, we need to aim at increasing the number of animals that could be held in the center at once. Currently, the number is around 100-200 birds a day.
A separate problem concerning the health and wellness of the Indigenous population is caused by the consumption of hydrocarbons contained in the meat of local birds and animals.31) It seems that the only possible way to protect the immune and endocrine systems of local people is to have them change their eating habits and provide them with uncontaminated food. This should be a priority, as the consumption of hydrocarbons is associated with mutations and cancer.32)
Now that we have mentioned the possible solutions to the consequences of oil pollution, it is important to talk about preventive measures, such as oil spill response systems. The climatic conditions of the Arctic are an obvious factor in reducing the effectiveness of most oil spill response technologies. Typical Arctic conditions affecting oil spill response operations include the presence of various types of sea ice, extremely low temperatures, limited visibility, strong sea waves, and wind. The establishment of proper infrastructure for liquidating oil spills is necessary to protect the Arctic environment.33) Reagent encapsulation technology has great potential. The main advantages of this technology are the efficiency of neutralization of contaminated soil in comparison with other neutralization technologies and the inexpensiveness of the reagent, which is construction lime widely produced in Russia.34)
Global climate change and oil pollution threaten the Arctic’s environment and its Indigenous peoples. Although there are multiple efforts made by the governments of the eight Arctic states (Canada; Denmark; Finland; Iceland; Norway; Russia; Sweden; and the United States) and non-Arctic states to protect the biodiversity of the Arctic and prevent the melting of sea-ice, the current political issues caused by Russia’s actions in Ukraine pose a great threat to all cooperation in the region, which is vitally important to the future of the Arctic. Implementing new technologies, proposed for liquidating oil spills, require investments and united efforts from all of the countries despite the ongoing conflict.
The authors are affiliated with Lomonosov Moscow State University, Saint Petersburg State University and United World College Dilijan.
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