Now comes word that the environmentally most dangerous means of moving oil through the region – shipping via oil tankers – is underway. Bloomberg reports that ship-tracking data has revealed two Russian tankers hauled an Exxon Valdez-size load of crude – about 1.5 million barrels – across the Arctic Ocean from western Russia to China in recent weeks.
Their route took them across the Chukchi and within tens of miles of Alaska as they passed through the 55-mile-wide Bering Strait separating Russia from the United States.
An oil spill in the area is widely believed to be one of the worst environmental disasters possible. Neither the U.S. nor Russia is prepared or equipped to deal with an Arctic disaster.
The technology for cleaning up oil in mixed ice and water conditions is still in the developmental stage, and neither country has a major port north of the Aleutians Islands from which to stage a cleanup effort.
Despite this lack of infrastructure to deal with a crisis, Russia is charging ahead with efforts to develop its Northern Sea Route to move oil, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and cargo.
“Shipments of commodities and other goods across the top of Russia doubled to about 20 million tons last year with oil and gas dominating,” Bloomberg noted. “Companies using the Arctic benefit from lower fuel bills and quicker deliveries to customers. The trade-off is a threat to the environment.”
Expectations are the Arctic Ocean will become increasingly ice-free as the planet warms.
While the extent of sea ice varies considerably from year to year, the long term trend is steadily downward “at a rate of 12.85 percent per decade” since 1980, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The Russians are aggressively pursuing the economic opportunities that come with less ice. The Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coast cuts almost in half the distance from Murmansk to Shanghai and in more than half the distance from Murmank to Yokohoma.
Murmansk in northeast Russia near the Finnish border is the largest port in the Arctic. The Northern Sea Route, along with cutting the distance to two of Asia’s biggest ports, significantly trims distances to most Asian ports.
Arctic Bulk promotes the route for its substantial reductions in transportation time, cost savings and safety from the piracy that has become an issue for ships transitting the Suez Canal and the Red Sea on the next shortest route to Asia.
The Northern Sea Route does have its critics.
“….Organizations including the UN’s intergovernmental body for climate change (are) saying it could have negative consequences for the region including higher emissions and threats to marine ecosystems,” Bloomberg reported. “The International Maritime Organization, the main entity overseeing shipping, is considering regulating the use of heavy fuel oil as a shipping propellant in the Arctic.”
Whether Russia would go along with such regulations or ignore them is unclear.
When Vladimir Putin was re-elected as Russian president last year, the Associated Press reported that “although painful sanctions have been imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea, its involvement in eastern Ukraine and its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election, Putin appears to be willing to pay the price, especially because rising world oil prices have restored some revenue. The economy has partially recovered from the depths of 2015-16 when the ruble lost half its value, but concerns persist about long-term prospects, especially if Russia is unable to boost its manufacturing sector and wean the economy off its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports.”
Since then, Putin has moved not to wean the country from oil and gas exports, but to expand those businesses to generate revenue. Russia expects to start supplying natural gas to China via the Power of Siberia pipeline by the end of the year.
That is part of a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal with China, Radio Free Europe reported. Russia also expects to double shipments of gas to Europe this year, according to the Russian news website RT.com.
The Russian gas company Novatek in September announced plans for another huge LNG project in the Arctic in cooperation with the Chinese, French and Japanese. Arctic LNG 2 comes two years after the start of Novatek’s first Arctic LNG plant on the Yamal Peninsula.
“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,” National Geographic reported in March. “Billions of them, in fact, to be made selling Arctic fossil fuels to the rest of the world.”
The first, $27 billion, Arctic LNG operation clings “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,” wrote Joel Bourne Jr.
“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.
“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.”
Though some have warned the whole operation could sink into the melting Arctic permafrost as the climate continues to warm, the Russians don’t seem particularly concerned.
Putin in September for the first time endorsed the Paris agreement to reduce global emissions of carbon dioxide, but it’s not clear if he meant the endorsement.
Putin “pointed out that Russia is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world, and its Arctic infrastructure is especially under threat,” Phys.org reported. “He said that Russia’s energy system is already ‘one of the greenest in the world’ because of use of natural gas.”
Despite the public posturing, questions remain as to the true Russian view on warming.
“Climates predicted by the 2080s over Asian Russia would be much warmer and milder,” Russian scientists reported in the journal Environmental Research Letters in June. The paper suggested global warming could finally allow the development of Siberia – long a Russian word for “frozen hell.”
Models “do not show extreme aridity,” they wrote. “The permafrost zone is predicted to significantly shift to the northeast. Ecological Landscape Potential would increase one to two categories from ‘low’ to ‘relatively high’ which would result in a higher capacity for population density across Asian Russia. Socio-economic processes and policy choices will compel the development that will lead to attracting people to migrate throughout the century.”
Observers of Russian politics have for years been suspicious the country might be a secret supporter of global warming.
Although Putin talked a good climate-change game at the global climate change conference in Paris in 2015, Quentin Buckholz writing a year later in The Diplomat observed that “while Putin has recently paid lip service to the pressing urgency of action, Russia’s climate action plan is indicative of continued official insouciance about climate change.”
Buckholz noted Russian economic dependence (a little like Alaskan economic dependence) on hydrocarbon exports and the believe warming could strengthen the country’s global power.
“Russia has aggressively staked its claims in the Arctic territory in anticipation of further melting,” he wrote. “Putin has also repeatedly alluded to projections that Russian agriculture could benefit from climate change, remarking in 2003, ‘Agricultural specialists say our grain production will increase, and thank God for that.’ This prediction is cited often by Russian officials seeking to downplay the potentially negative effects of climate change.
“However, this limited and optimistic view appears misguided. It is increasingly clear that climate change is likely to adversely affect Russia in several ways, from severe weather events to territorial loss to growing instability on the country’s southern periphery and in its major cities.”
Some of the scientists, however, aren’t so sure about that last conclusion. Elena Parfenova and Nadezhda Tchebakova from the Sukachev Institute of Forest at the Krasnoyarsk Federal Research Center, working with Amber Soja from NASA, concluded that thanks to warming Siberia and the Russian Far East “could become attractive and viable for climate migrants.”
“Climate severity categorized as ‘extreme’, ‘severe’, and ‘unfavorable’ – prevailing presently on 80 percent of Asian Russia – is predicted to become milder as ‘fairly favorable’ and ‘moderately favorable’ on over 40 percent of the area and would remain ‘severe’ and ‘unfavorable’ on only 38 percent of the area” in the warmest scenarios expected for 2080,” they wrote.
Though Asian Russia makes up about two-thirds of the country, it is now home to only about 27 percent of the country’s population or about 40 million people. That is about the same population as the state of California.
“Ecological landscape potential (a measure of ecological carrying capacity) determines regional human life conditions and economic capability based on food security, which is directly related to crop yields,” Parfenova and her colleagues observed. “The prevailing ELP categories that relate human life comfort in the current climate are ‘low’ and ‘very low’ over 85 percent in Asian Russia.
“Life conditions would improve to ‘medium’ and ‘fairly high’ categories over greater than 50 percent of the total area in the warmer 2080 RCP 8.5 climate scenario.”
This change, they predicted, could lead to a threefold to ninefold increase in the population of Asian Russia. Maize production would become possible on the lands with fairly high ELPs; spring wheat, winter wheat, and oats could be grown in the medium lands; and barley and oats in the low lands of low category.
As Asian Russia warmed, the scientists concluded, one would expect a steady migration of people into the area.
With climate change expected to cause the most havoc in and near the subtropics, where Russian interests are limited, who knows what Putin might truly think Russian policy should be. But he did once observe that with warming “we could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.”