Russia is actively exploring the Arctic. However, it is principally done by the military so far. On October 22nd the Ministry of Defense reported that there was opened a military town for the forces of the Easter Military District on Wrangel Island, 22 years after the forces of the USSR left it. It is called “the Polar Star”.
The opening of a town is the first step toward the expansion of the Russian military presence in the Arctic. The Ministry of Defense is planning in the near future to deploy the 99th task force on Kotelny Island, the 80th separate motor rifle brigade in the village of Alakurtti of Murmansk Oblast, and radar stations and air direction centers on the islands of Alexander I Island (Franz Josef Land), Novaya Zemlya, Wrangel Island and Mys Shmidta.
It is quite evident that our country endeavors to carry the palm in the Arctic as best one can, if not by legal technique, but by the rule of force. It is believed in our country (as in many other countries for that matter) that the Arctic is a treasury rich in hydrocarbons and other resources. Artur Chilingarov, Special Presidential Representative for International Cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic, Member of the Board of Directors of Rosneft, has recently said that the state company’s aggregate reserves alone in the region are estimated to be 38.3 billion tons of oil equivalent. The sanctions imposed by the West upon Russia have preeminently affected the promising projects in the Arctic. In August-September the USA, the EU and Norway imposed restrictions upon the delivery or re-export of goods, services (except for financial ones) and technologies for deep marine shelf and Arctic sea shelf exploration and production projects and shale oil production projects.
However, in all likelihood, there are other things beside the sanctions which can impede the Russian Arctic campaign. The ecologists are arduously trying to force the Moscow Government to suspend both its military programs and the commercial development of the shelf. For instance, the issue of the Arctic development was raised at the meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights which took place in October of this year and was headed by Vladimir Putin. Sergey Tsyplenkov, Executive Director of Greenpeace Russia, expressed to the head of the state his concerns about the Ministry of Defense which started developing Wrangel Island. “The Ministry of Defense has started constructing a military base in the territory of Wrangel Island Natural Reserve which is a “maternity home” to polar bears. Alright, there might be no alternative to this there, but they made a landing there as part of maneuvers as early as in September. It is a breach of environmental laws, a breach of the law on specially protected natural areas”, said he. At the same time, the ecologist admitted that he did not know that there had been a large military base on the island back in Soviet times, and, as Vladimir Putin put it, “we are basically restoring what was lost”.
Truth be told, the ecologists should have no issues with the military so far. Dmitry Bulgakov, Deputy Minister of Defense, has lately said that a regional environmental center of the Northern Fleet will be formed in the nearest future; it will “exercise environmental monitoring and control over compliance with the Russian and international environmental laws both in the fleet’s deployment sites and in the arctic zone where our military personnel is deployed”.
To carry on its offshore activity in the Arctic seas, Gazprom and Rosneft go to great lengths to minimize their risks. It is easier to do for Rosneft since the company is engaged only in exploration drilling (after drilling the first well in the Kara Sea at the beginning of October, there was discovered a field, which was called “Pobeda” (Victory), whose reserves are estimated to be 100 million tons). Gazprom, represented by its subsidiary Gazprom Neft, is already recovering oil on the “Prirazlomnaya” rig at the eponymous field in the Pechora Sea.
A large set of measures aimed at preventing ingresses of oil or harmful substances into the environment was implemented on “Prirazlomnaya”. The rig operates on the principle of “zero discharge”, in other words, nothing is discharged into the sea. All household waste, all drilling waste is packed in special containers and removed by convoy vessels and tankers to the mainland. Furthermore, there is a so-called absorbing well – all waste is pumped into a stratum isolated from other strata. All possible safety measures are naturally provided for when it comes to oil export. Oil is shipped with the help of two sets of direct oil shipment devices. Two such sets are used in case there is a change in the current and winds during moorage and shipment. Then a tanker is undocked and sails to the other side. A tanker is equipped with a dynamic positioning system which enables it to be constantly at a fixed point. Three dozen conditions should be met during shipment, with this process being monitored by automatic equipment. If even one condition is not met, shipment is automatically terminated in 7 seconds. If there is an oil leak, the rig has all necessary machinery and equipment and special ships. Moreover, there are emergency response teams at sea and ashore in the field camp of Varandey which regularly stage exercises. The last exercises were staged in August of this year.
Many sets of protective measures implemented on “Prirazlomnaya” have already been field-proven in other offshore projects in northern seas (however, it must be confessed, there have been elaborated no uniform standards as yet). And it must also be noted that the ecologists do not try to prohibit, for instance, Norway to develop the shelf. On the contrary, the authorities of this country are planning to start issuing licenses for the development of new areas in 2016, and the first exploration drilling may begin as early as next year. Håkon Smith-Isakesen, Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, says that approximately 40 petroleum companies have already expressed their interest in obtaining offshore licenses in the north.
It is beyond doubt that the Arctic’s ecosystem is very fragile and should be treated as carefully as possible. However modern technologies allow minimizing the majority of possible risks and ensuring the regular operation of offshore rigs and the maternity home of polar bears alike.