While most of the world is watching the rapidly melting Arctic with increasing alarm and placing the blame squarely on fossil fuels, Russia and its partners in France and China are seeing ruble signs. Billions of them, in fact, to be made selling Arctic fossil fuels to the rest of the world.
Late last year, the Russian energy giant Novatek finished building the northernmost industrial facility on the globe: Yamal LNG, a $27-billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant sitting at 71.2 degrees north at Sabetta, on the bank of the Ob River. The facility and its new port cling to the eastern shore of the gas-rich Yamal Peninsula, which sticks up like a frostbitten thumb into the Kara Sea—that is, in the middle of frozen nowhere.
The plant was finished a year ahead of schedule, in no small part because the Russian government helped build a massive port for LNG tankers, an airport, and a powerplant, not to mention using its fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers to keep the channel clear for ships coming in with construction material.
And that's just the beginning. Some 15 ice-breaking LNG tankers are on order, along with a new rail line and two more LNG facilities across the Ob River estuary. The Russians expect all the plants to produce a combined 60 million tons of LNG each year by 2030.
Sabetta, a community that was tiny even by frozen-tundra standards only five years ago, is now a major building block in Russian President Vladimir Putin's grand pivot north. "This is a very convenient place with really good logistics," Putin said in 2015. He sees Sabetta as "a universal port for all kinds of goods."
The prospect of relatively cheap gas along the shortcut between Asia and Europe drew a few investors anxious for a toehold in the Arctic, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates may hold a fifth of the remaining oil and gas reserves on Earth. Total, the French oil major, owns a 20 percent stake of the Yamal LNG plant, as does CNPC, China's national gas company. The Chinese government's Silk Road Fund owns ten percent.
The plant is just now beginning to operate at full capacity, but last year it shipped 7.5 million tons of LNG to five continents, according to Novatek. It also attracted French photographer Charles Xelot, a former environmental engineer who had become fascinated with the massive project.
"This is a very important project for them," says Xelot. Initially hired by Novatek, he was given free range to photograph the plant, which during construction hummed with some 30,000 workers. "There are very few large industrial projects in Russia. This is the only one Russian television is talking about, saying this is the future." Sabetta is now a small city with restaurants and gyms and even a small Russian Orthodox church that was blessed by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in 2016.
Xelot has returned several times since to photograph the new workers’ village, as well as the traditional villages of nearby Nenets reindeer herders, who have lived in Yamal for generations. He was the only Westerner to travel aboard the Christophe de Margerie—Sovcomflot's first ice-breaking LNG tanker, named for the late CEO of Total—on its maiden voyage from Yamal to France. It broke through five-foot-thick ice en route.
"It felt like riding a train," Xelot says. "No rolling at all, just flat. Outside you could hear the slosh of ice along the side."
The giant ship, like many others that Russia plans to operate along the Northern Sea Route, runs on LNG, which is a good thing, says Frederic Hauge, founder of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, who has worked in the Russian Arctic for decades.
"Running a ship on LNG doesn't help the climate much," Hauge says, "but in terms of accidental release there is a big difference between gas and heavy fuel oil."
Russia has been transporting oil in ice-class tankers for the past few years from a few small fields and offshore platforms in the Arctic to a pristine Norwegian fjord near Honningsvag. There the cargo is transferred to larger, non-ice-class tankers for shipment further south. Last November it started to do the same thing with LNG.
More traffic in the Arctic?
The production at the new Yamal plant helped increase the traffic on Russia's Northern Sea Route—which runs 2,800 miles from the Kara Sea east to the Bering Strait—by 25 percent last year, to 18 million tons of cargo. Putin has ordered that the tonnage be quadrupled to 80 million tons in just five years. That would still be only around a tenth of the amount shipped through the Suez Canal—but huge for the Arctic.
Even Russia's ministry of natural resources choked on that target. Meeting it, it reported, would take an additional $163-billion investment in Arctic resources—including development of coal deposits on the Taymyr Peninsula east of Yamal, of the Payakha oil field in the Yenisey River delta, and of a northbound oil pipeline from the Vankor oil field.
"This is more vanity for Putin than reality," says Natasha Udensiva, an energy and marine transport expert, and lecturer at Columbia University's School of International Affairs and Public Policy. "There are not many ships using it, and the entire route is only open for a few months of the year. But even if it was open ocean and you are sending cargo vessels from Europe to Asia, there's nothing there. No customers. You can't make multiple stops. I don't think it's as viable as the Russians are saying it is."
And there's another big problem that may burst Putin's dream of an industrialized Russian Arctic, says Udensiva—the same one the Russians are exacerbating by pulling more fossil fuels out of the ground here.
"I'm not sure how long the project will go on because of climate change," Udensiva says. "They built the LNG plant on pilings because of the permafrost, and yet everything in the Arctic is melting. In gas fields in particular there is some danger. There are a lot of holes in the permafrost there already and you don't know when they will open up."
Besides climate change itself, efforts to limit climate change also makes investing in Arctic gas risky. "The immediate question is, will we need gas for that long?” Udensiva says. Europe is adopting aggressive decarbonization goals, China is shifting fast to electric cars, and the world is awash in cheap gas. “If you were an investor, would you put all this money into fossil fuels?"
Xelot was struck by more philosophical questions as he photographed tiny workers welding together panels on the inside of giant gas storage tanks at Yamal, as if they were stonecutters working on Notre Dame. Centuries ago, he says, “we were putting the same energy into building cathedrals. Now we are putting all our energy into these edifices to fossil fuels. Even the wellheads look like an orthodox cross."
Whether future Russians will benefit from the present Arctic gamble—or will see it as Putin's folly—remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Arctic continues to warm at twice the rate of the rest of the world.