Russia’s Yamal Peninsula reveals the paradox of sustainable Arctic development

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Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor Dmitry Kobylkin addresses the Arctic Circle assembly through a translator as Anton Vasiliev, Russian Ambassador to Iceland, sits on stage.

For the fourth year in a row, Arctic Circle, the world’s largest gathering on Arctic issues convened in Iceland’s capital. Headline speakers at the Reykjavik event included United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Almost every speaker addressing the 2,000-person conference touched upon how climate change is dramatically altering the Arctic environment. Yet a presentation by the governor of Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YNAO), a gas-rich region home to half a million people that occupies a fifth of the country’s Arctic territory, stood out from the rest.

Governor Kobylkin showed a slick 15-minute long video that lauded the accomplishments of the region’s people and industries. The movie made clear that even if polished productions have replaced the crude propaganda of the Soviet era, the same celebratory undertones remain. An unaccented English voiceover intoned, “Yamal promotes safe development, in the broadest sense of the word” – a definition broad enough, apparently, to include Arctic oil and gas development. In between clips of galloping reindeer (“the world’s largest flock”) and smiling indigenous peoples, industrial facilities were shown gloriously spewing steam and chemicals into the frosty air. Most of the shots were taken in winter, when a white layer of snow offers a façade of purity to even the most polluting of complexes in the Arctic.

Inadvertently, the video revealed the uncomfortable paradox of mankind’s supposed ability to sustainably develop Arctic fossil fuels. The audience looked on skeptically at the Russian video showing reindeer herders and natural gas facilities peacefully coexisting. But so many of the other speakers at Arctic Circle presented the same contradictions, only in a more nuanced way. Empty proclamations like “connecting markets brings opportunities” and vague suggestions of “smart resource extraction” may not have made the audience as perplexed as the Russian video did. But that’s only because they were delivered in the familiar and acceptable language of sustainable development rather than in the form of a heavily produced Russian video that may have fit in just as seamlessly, if only it had benefited from a better editor.

A Russian belief that human labor, not climate, is transforming the Arctic

The Yamal presentation was also distinct in its downplaying of the notion of climate change as responsible for opening up the Arctic. Although climactic explanations of Arctic development are par for the course at conferences like Arctic Circle, Russia’s extraction and export of its northern resources started well before global warming drew the world’s attention north. For Russia, developing the Arctic, a region responsible for a reported 20% of the country’s GDP, has been and will continue to be crucial for its economy – “sustainable” or “safe” development be damned.

According to Governor Dmitry Kobylkin, the tireless work of his region’s people has converted it into a modern, livable place whose resources can be exported to global markets. Through a translator, the governor explained, “Our most valuable asset is the people who have transformed this landscape into a secure and viable home.”

Yamal’s governor blithely added, “The Arctic should not be conquered, it should be made habitable.” But Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia have all made the Arctic a place suitable for an industrial way of life precisely by conquering nature. Forced labor, innovative technologies, and sheer willpower have been key to turning places in the Russian Arctic like Yamal into major suppliers for global commodities markets. The world’s largest nickel mine, Norilsk, also lies in the country’s north.

Hard work along with domestic economic pressures have put the Yamal peninsula at the center of the development of Russia’s Arctic economy. Many in the West have cautioned against drilling Arctic oil and gas reserves. But Russia is pushing full steam ahead to develop its enormous offshore reserves, particularly as its oil fields in Western Siberia become depleted. Already, the Yamal region accounts for 20% of global natural gas production. Russia’s Prirazlomnaye offshore oil field, the first in the world north of the Arctic Circle, began international exports in 2014.

The Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas Project, China, and the new Silk Road

The regional government’s presentation at Arctic Circle exemplified Yamal’s effort to market itself as a safe and profitable place for global investment rather than the “end of the world,” as it tends to be described in the few news stories out there about the remote peninsula. If people have heard anything about Yamal, it’s likely because of an enormous crater that opened in the earth in the summer of 2014. This summer, the alarming deaths of over 2,300 reindeer in Yamal due to a release of anthrax from the melting tundra also briefly made headlines. The disease even spread to humans, sickening 13.

Climate change and industrial encroachments are jeopardizing the future of reindeer herding, still carried on by some of Yamal’s 40,000 indigenous inhabitants. As traditional practices based on close relationships with the environment struggle to adapt, Yamal is pushing forward with developing and marketing of its natural resources. During his presentation, the governor noted, “36 out of 56 strategically important projects in the Russian North are located in Yamal.”

The most important of those is the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project. Foreign investors in the multi-billion dollar project include France’s Total, China National Petroleum Corporation, and China’s recently established Silk Road Fund, which alone has lent $12 billion. The backing by the two Chinese entities is motivated by the belief that once the project comes onstream, supposedly next year, LNG will be transported from the peninsula by Korean-built ice-class tankers along Russia’s Northern Sea Route east to Asia in summer and west to Europe in winter.

Yamal could therefore form an important link in China’s efforts to expand its transportation network across the Eurasian continent and Arctic waters to access new markets and natural resources. The peninsula’s Port of Sabetta, from which gas would be exported, “is roughly the same difference from Paris as it is from Beijing,” Kobylkin noted. This shipping link would build on industrial foundations established during the Soviet era. In 1962, the first gas was pumped out of Yamal. Today, the commodity flows to global markets via corridors like the 4,196-kilometer Yamal-Europe gas pipeline, which terminates in Germany.

From the governor’s point of view, Yamal lies not so much the edge of the earth but rather at the center of two major global markets: Europe and Asia. He was also keen to stress that the region’s capital, Salekhard, is the only city to lie directly on the Arctic Circle. Geography therefore seems important, but human efforts ultimately decide a region’s destiny rather than nature (and certainly not fears about climate change). The only thing superseding man is science. Kobylkin, speaking of a new vaccine developed to protect Yamal’s reindeer against anthrax, testified, “This vindicates our belief that science should be going ahead of man.” In the Russian Arctic and beyond, where it appears that technological advances that make offshore drilling possible are being implemented ahead of robust testing and preparations, this belief may represent the real danger.

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