Russia’s Bid to Exploit Gas Under the Stunning Arctic Tundra

It isn’t every day you find yourself playing ping pong in the Arctic. But there wasn’t much else for Charles Xelot and others aboard the Russian cargo ship RZK Constanta to do besides engage in bouts of table tennis, watch TV, or relax in the on-board sauna. The vessel carried construction supplies for a new liquefied natural gas plant on the remote Yamal Peninsula, but its route through the Kara Sea along the Northeast Passage was frozen. An ice-breaker couldn’t tow it for another couple weeks—leaving the crew plenty of time for R&R. “It was like a paid holiday for them,” Xelot says.

That experience two winters ago illustrates the challenges Russia faces as it attempts to exploit the Arctic’s resources—a subject Xelot documents in his poetic series There Is Gas Under the Tundra. His surreal, industrial photographs depict the construction of the new plant, its freezing environment and shipping activities along the Northeast Passage—including the monstrous icebreaker (pictured above) that appeared one snowy night to tow the ship to port. “We were like, ‘Yes, finally! We’re going to move!'” Xelot says.

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The Arctic contains an estimated 22 percent of Earth’s undiscovered oil and natural gas, with more than 60 big fields—43 in Russia—discovered since the early 1960s. Until recently, those resources were mostly trapped beneath ice and the high cost of working in an undeveloped region. But that’s changing as melting ice makes it easier to drill and opens up new shipping routes like the Northeast Passage, which cuts travel time from Europe to Asia in half (and avoids pirates to boot). Of course, obstacles remain: Ice eight months a year, darkness for three, and extreme weather with temperatures below -50 degrees Fahrenheit—to say nothing of the fragile environment. But Russia, whose economy partly runs on energy exports, is eager to dominate the new frontier.

“Russia historically has been a territorial and natural resources-driven power, and it has remained so until present day,” says Agnia Grigas, energy expert and author of The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas. “The focus on locking in Arctic resources and routes goes hand-in-hand with the Kremlin’s ambitions of extending its influence and great power status beyond its territory.”

What better place to do that than Yamal—literally “end of the world” in the local Nenets language? The autonomous district is bigger than Texas and has 32 natural gas fields, with an estimated 35 trillion cubic yards of the stuff, according to Russian state oil company Gazprom. It’s here, on thousands of piles wedged deep into the permafrost, that US-sanctioned company Novatek just erected its $27 billion Yamal LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) plant. Bankrolled by the Chinese government and French gas giant Total, the plant extracts natural gas thousands of feet below ground and cools it to a liquid form that’s easier to transport. At full capacity, it can deliver up to 18 million tons of LNG a year to tankers sailing the Northeast Passage, bound for Europe and the US. “Putin has vowed to make Russia the leading LNG exporter,” Grigas says. “Yamal LNG represents that ambition.”

Xelot heard about the project four years ago while living and working in Russia. It combined his love for extreme climates with his background in environmental engineering, a career path he ditched for photography in 2010. So he contacted Novatek, and they agreed to let him document the plant in exchange for some photos.

He did so with a digital medium format camera during six trips to Yamal, traversing the icy terrain by snowmobile, trekol (a six-wheeled, amphibious hulk that Putin favors), and ship—and not just the one that got stranded. Xelot also sailed the Northeast Passage aboard the Christophe de Margerie, a new $320 million icebreaker-tanker that can cut its own path through ice nearly seven feet thick. It’s one of 15 such vessels expressly designed for Yamal LNG—demonstrating Russia’s resolve to overcome the Arctic’s challenges and export its energy to the rest of the world.

For Xelot, the voyage brought the story home—in his case, literally. The vessel carried LNG from Yamal to his native France, where he again lives. “It seems far away,” Xelot says, “but when you switch on the gas to boil some water to make some pasta, that gas could come from the tundra.”


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