Author: by Sergei GOLUBCHIKOV, Cand. Sc. (Geography), Geography Institute, RAS
Russia's geostrategic interests have always been focused on areas north of the Russian hinterland, on the Arctic, beginning with the voyages of its coast- dwelling adventurers in the late Middle Ages to Svalbard (for which Russians had a different name, Grumant), and ending, in our days, with the exploration and development of the Northern Passage and the Arctic continental shelf in the 20th century. In the future, the nation's development efforts will again be centered on the region, home for a mere 10 million people despite its unending vastness. This persistence is largely due to the colossal stores of natural gas, gas condensate and oil locked up deep in the region's continental shelf. The average yield of potentially recoverable fuel per well here is put at between 600 and 800 million tons of hydrocarbons in oil equivalent, reaching 1, or even 1.5, billion tons in the Western Arctic. There is, at the moment, no place in the world to beat these figures. Significantly, these estimates have been made on the basis of drilling data for 120 wells strung across the enormous territory from the Kola Peninsula in Northern Europe to the Sakhalin Island in the Pacific.
Russia's Arctic continental shelf is a unique national treasure in terms of discovered and probable reserves of many minerals. The recoverable resources of hydrocarbons in this region are invariably placed at over 100 billion tons of oil equivalent. This guess, though, is based on the miserably scarce knowledge we have today about the geology of the Earth's interior in the region. With the total area of this country's peripheral maritime girdle of some 6 million km2, less than a million kilometers of seismic sections has been studied here, and less than 800,000 km2 of the 4.2 mm km2 of the shelf has been explored. The density of observations is rarely more than 1 km per 1 km2 even in the best-researched areas of the shelf (such as Sakhalin and the Barents Sea). This is pitifully little next to the principal shelf provinces of the world (like the Northern Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, etc.), which have densities tens or hundreds of times as high. Moreover, of the 120 wells we just mentioned, 70 have actually been drilled off the Sakhalin Island and another 45 in the Western Arctic, with none in the limitless expanse between the Kara Sea and the Magadan shelf.
For all the paucity of knowledge about the Russian continental shelf, geological and prospecting surveys have been amazingly productive here. Specifically, the general geological structure has been explored; key oil- and gas-bearing pools have been identified; some 400 local sites have been picked out, with one in every four of them prepared for deep drilling; and 29 fields have been discovered.
In the Western Arctic, a giant oil and gas province containing 70 percent of the total resource of Russia's shelf has been located. New oil and gas producing centers can be established in three major regions-the Central Barents Sea, the Southern Kara Sea gas condensate fields and the Pechora oil and gas condensate pools. So far, 16 fields here have acquired worldwide fame. Three of them, the Shtockman gas condensate, Leningrad and Rusanovo gas fields have total reserves of 10 to 12 trillion m3 of natural gas between them.
Another huge oil- and gas-rich area has been discovered on the northeastern shelf of Sakhalin. Its potential gas reserves have been estimated at 1.6 billion m3. Two of its large fields, Odoptu Morie and Chaivo, were discovered in the late '70s, and another two, Lunskoye and Arkutun Dagi, were found in the '90s.
The northern and eastern shelves of the Okhotsk Sea, the Khatyr and Anadyr sections of the Bering Sea, and the Chukchi, East Siberian, and Laptev seas probably hold a high promise of oil and gas.
The Arctic shelf abounds in other minerals as well, such as coal, gold, copper, nickel, tin, platinum, manganese, and many more. True enough, the only minerals mined today are coal on Spitsbergen and gold on the Bolshevik Island (Sevemaya Zemlya).
Mining minerals on the Arctic shelf is a challenging task. For example, the Shtockman gas field sits in the central part of the Barents Sea. Its gas-bearing bed lying 518m below the sea bottom contains about 3 trillion m3 in prospected resources. Its development poses a major problem because of its enormous distance from the mainland (nearly 600 km from the coast of
the Kola Peninsula), considerable depth of the sea (300 to 320 m), high tides, frequent storms, and drifting ice floes. This situation is made even worse by engineering and geological factors-numberless ruptures of the Mesozoic rocks affecting the properties of bottom soils and topography. Extra problems for developers are created by subzero temperatures at the bottom. Still, the greatest barriers to commercial development are put up by the interaction between the formation fluid and the gas hydrates enclosing them in layers. All this requires new techniques and technologies to be developed for oil drilling and pumping from sea platforms or underwater structures. They can be designed eventually, at a high cost in scientific effort, money and time.(*) To give figures, the cost of a project to develop the Shtockman field is put at 30 billion dollars.
Meanwhile today we are left with turning to less lucrative and more immediate fields on the Sakhalin shelf under the projects Sakhalin 1 (Chaivo, Odoptu Morie, and Arkutun Dagi fields), Sakhalin 2 (Lunskoye and Tiltun Astokh), and, in a longer run, Sakhalin 3 (the Kirin block). The first two projects harbor 273 million tons of recoverable oil and 751 billion m3 of natural gas, respectively. These fields lie in the Okhotsk Sea, between 13 and 16 km east of the Sakhalin Island. The area is ice-bound for six to nine months a year (with an average thickness of the ice fields varying between 1 and 2 m). The sea here is 30 to 50 m deep, and the area is known for its very high seismicity, up to 8 points on the Richter scale. If these adversities are safely tamed, enough gas would flow to populated areas in the Russian Far East by as early as 2005. Local oil refineries would give up the oil they are importing from the Tyumen Region to meet their fuel needs, only 10 percent of which is covered from local gas today.
There is a snag here, however. Sakhalin is famous for its unique nature. Giving it its due, oil operators keep reassuring the authorities (by incorporating an environment clause in every contract) that they would adhere to the most stringent standards known at every stage of the project to guarantee safety and protection for the local environment.
The Arctic is a harsh place to be in. The time rig attendants remain on the sea platforms has to be reduced to a minimum, or oil pumping is to be completely automated. Overall, Russian continental shelf ventures threaten the Arctic environment with enormous hazards, given the fragile balance of the local nature over boundless expanses. No time must be lost, therefore, in drawing up and adopting a concept for rational development of natural resources in Arctic and Far Eastern seas and adjoining land fringes. Year-round navigation in the Northern Passage must become one of its key objectives. An unorthodox solution to this problem could be furnished by deactivated naval ships and converted submarines and auxiliary vessels that could double as either icebreakers or tankers.
Another tremendous problem is making Northern communities self-sufficient in fuel by providing them with highly efficient compact deep-refining modules to operate directly on the oil fields. In 1997, the Russian Government adopted a program, to be implemented in 2000, to provide Northern areas and territories having similar natural and climatic conditions with energy from nontraditional renewable energy sources and local fuels. By the time the Program is completed, as much as 1.1 million tons of liquid fuel imported annually by these regions, is to be substituted with other fuels, including 375,000 tons obtained from nontraditional renewable sources and 350,000 tons of local fuels.
Wind power faces a bright future in the Arctic, a region unrivaled for the ferocity of its storm-force winds raging all year round. Two wind power plants of up to 250 kW each were built at Nikolskoye on the Commodore Islands in 1996. They help the local community save nearly 400 tons of diesel oil and lubricants a year. The power plants are producing electricity at only 1/4 the cost of power generated by diesel power plants.
Finally, skilled labor must be at hand for comprehensive and rational recovery of Northern riches. Regrettably, the outflow of qualified work force from the North to the Russian heartland has intensified in recent years.(*)
The minerals stashed away in the Arctic shelf and shores will stay put where they are now unless the government overhauls its support programs for Northern ethnic communities. As time creeps along, the local communities may be denuded of their population.
* See: Ye. Velikhov et al., "Gas, Oil, and Ice", Science in Russia, No. 3, 1994. - Ed.
* See: Yu. Golubchikov, "The North: High Latitudes and Broad Opportunities", Science in Russia, No. 2, 1999.- Ed.
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