Drilling in the Russian arctic has its proclaimed benefits and drawbacks. Source: Øystein Alsaker, Flickr CC

There has been much talk centered around the industrialization of the Russian arctic zone[1], but much less on the effect that this will have on the arctic environment and the communities living there. This portion of the arctic is home to 4 million people, many of whom are descendants of indigenous communities who have lived in the region for thousands of years along with a diverse range of unique wildlife: hundreds of species of seabirds, millions of migrating birds, 17 different species of whale, 90% of the world’s narwhale population and numerous mammals including polar bears, arctic foxes, and various species of seal.

In order to properly articulate the damages that the industrialization projects will have on this ecosystem, let us briefly recapitulate what the arctic industrialization consists of. The arctic industrialization is a revivalist movement which aims to further develop the structures established during the Soviet era. This has gained momentum ever since the statistics from the United States Geological Survey highlighted that this portion of the arctic ocean may contain 90 million barrels of oil, 1.669 trillion cubic meter of gas, and 44 billion barrels of gas condensate; in short the estimated global undiscovered reserves of oil (13%) and gas (30%). The project includes an integrated transport system in the arctic, the establishment of a competitive scientific and technological sector, the development of internal cooperation and the preservation of the arctic as a zone of peace. The plan will be partially government funded and partially carried out by private companies like Lukoil, Rosneft and Gazpromneft. While private companies will focus on the extraction and act according to the principles of market economy, the state projects will instead focus on the general development of the area. Still, it is important to highlight that the arctic is a fragile environment and this plan must therefore encourage sustainable development for centuries to come, using an approach that goes beyond pure economic profitability and involves ideas of sovereignty and Russian statehood as well. Transparency and good behavior during the implementation of the project are important when it comes to controlling the future of the arctic. However, both parties may find these notions hard to enforce.

As mentioned earlier, the environmental aspect of this plan has been almost entirely left out and, even though Dimitry Rogozin (deputy prime minister of Russia) affirmed that the arctic environment would be among the top priorities of the region’s development with the area becoming a model cleanness zone, the reality is far from that. Two of the main concerns are the long-term consequences that will arise for the local population and the flora and fauna, and the concrete possibility of an oil spill. The scientific consensus is that an oil spill in the arctic is inevitable if drilling progresses. Moreover, Greenpeace scientists assert that the drilling industry is unprepared and unable to clean up a major arctic oil spill, since they do not have the technology or the infrastructure to deal with the specific challenges of a disaster in the region.

Source: Øystein Alsaker, Flickr CC

Although the industry has developed certain technologies to help avert accidents, these are in no way enough to sustain the expanding industry in the region, an issue that is exacerbated by the fact that, due to climate change contributed by fossil emission, new regions have emerged for the extraction of more fossil fuel. The damages provoked by an oil spill will be unimaginable. The main ecological challenge posed by an accidental oil spill is cleaning, which would be a greater challenge in the arctic than in any other part of the world and could take years, if not decades. The environment, unlike more temperate and tropical places, is not equipped with the right amount of bacteria to take over and clean up the oil left behind and, more importantly, the spilled oil would get trapped under the ice for several months of the year. On this matter, the arctic drilling season is limited to a narrow window of a few months during the summer. In this short period of time, the huge logistical response necessary to cap a leaking well would almost be impossible to complete since the successful drilling of vital relief wells, crucial to permanently cap a ruptured well, could not be guaranteed before the winter ice returns. If the relief well is left unfinished over the winter, the oil will continue to gush out for up to two years. While the problem of the absence of an appropriate risk mitigation against the possibility of an oil spill can be categorized as an immediate threat and one that will surely resonate across the globe a less coveted hazard is posing greater problems to the area: the vicious circle of the intensive development work accompanied by large PR campaigns focused on making local residents believe that oil drilling and production are harmless and will positively contribute to the overall development and infrastructure of the region. The government creates environmentally friendly legal frameworks to appease the local population; laws that, in the end, are not implemented and instead ignore oil company violations. The corruption is rampant and the government often offers huge tax breaks to the industries opposing global climate negotiations. This is seriously threatening to harm the indigenous people whose lives are deeply connected to the land. The soil is becoming more and more polluted, and traditional food sources are depleted, forcing some to leave the land, as the poisoned soil is no longer able to sustain the people on traditional land use. These people receive little support from the government or oil companies and are increasingly reduced to poverty. This because the government and the private companies prefer to import workers from the outside since the industry receives tax rebates for bringing in outsiders who have no connection to the land.

The world’s northernmost bust of Lenin. Source: neil banas, Flickr CC

Greenpeace has for a long time violently opposed the project, but its adversarial actions could have two opposing effects; they may force accountability, but also drive them further into the dark. In fact, Russia has been trying to divert the attention by sanctioning Greenpeace activities, accusing them of committing piracy acts in the area which rerouted the international community’s perception from seeing a peaceful environmental protest, to violations of the activist’s civil liberties.

In the end, the Arctic’s future appears to be bleak, characterized by an anarchic and exploited land where poor governance, activism and pollution will be rife, damaging forever the incredibly diverse ecosystem and the locals who live in symbiosis with it.


[1] Which includes the Murmansk region, Chukotka, the northern part of the Sakha/Yakutia Republic, the Republic of Karelia’s coastal territories of the White Sea, the Arkhangelsk region including the cities of Severodvinsk, Novodvinsk, Onezhsky District, Primorsky District, Mezesky District and all the islands of the region. Also, the towns of Vorkuta and Komi in the Nenets and Yamalo-Nenets federal subjects, the cities Norilsk, Igarka and the Taymyr district of Krasnoyarsk Territory.

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