Polar ice is melting, and the Arctic region, from North America to Russia, reveals its hidden treasures. With thinner ice and new open pathways to the deep north, drilling previously inaccessible parts of the planet has never been a more attractive pursuit.
The world’s biggest economies are joining the race to assert their power over the Arctic’s fossil fuel resources, whether by claiming new territories or building new infrastructure in harsh environments.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest move in this direction is a colossal plant that will extract liquefied natural gas (LNG), helping Russia become the world’s biggest exporter of the chilled fuel ahead of Qatar, which currently leads the market.
The plant, worth US$27 billion, is located in the remote Yamal Peninsula above the Arctic circle and was realised in partnership with France’s Total and China’s CNPC.
By the start of 2019, the plant will extract 16.5 million tonnes per year.
The project’s deputy director Dmitry Monakov said that producing LNG in permafrost was easier than in warmer climes: “Nature itself helps us to more effectively liquefy gas with the help of such low temperatures,” he told AFP.
“Together we managed to build from scratch a world-class LNG project in extreme conditions to exploit the vast gas resources of the Yamal peninsula,” he said in a company statement.
While the peninsula holds massive fossil fuel reserves, it’s covered by ice for most of the year, with temperatures reaching -50°C (-58°F).
Samuel Lussac, an oil and gas specialist at Wood Mackenzie consultancy, told AFP that the next few months will exhibit “whether the plant can operate smoothly in the harsh Arctic environment.”
As the world’s biggest gas exporter, Russia makes huge profits from distributing fossil fuels to Europe, but it is also seeking to strengthen partnerships with new allies such as China, which provided finance for the new LNG plant among other projects.
Analysts at the global think tank Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) warn that Russia’s “ostrich approach to phasing out fossil fuels and its denial of the human origins of climate change” could hamper climate action globally.
Russia is currently the world’s fourth biggest emitter, and the only major polluter that has yet to ratify the Paris Agreement.
The independent research network Climate Action Tracker (CAT) labels the country’s emission targets “critically insufficient” to meet the Paris Agreement goals.
It points out that “the Russian Federation is one of the world’s largest emitters and fossil fuels producers. As a consequence, it has a large mitigation potential, and could play a major role in international climate policy.”
According to the CEPS, Russia’s main trading partners such as China, Germany, Japan, Korea, India, and the Nordic countries hold a great deal of power in nudging the country’s energy policies.
“Climate change policies and regulations,” the analysts write, “are now being adopted by most countries, not least out of benign self-interest. In lagging behind now, Russia risks being unprepared for the post-fossil fuel era.”