The Barents Sea is home to some of the world's largest gas reserves in the world – the Shtokman field. It was long meant to be tapped, but the brakes were put on the Arctic project in 2012 and its future looks uncertain.
Professor Marcel Gubaidullin is the director of the Institute for Oil and Gas at the Northern (Arctic) Federal University in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk. He talked to DW about the challenges of exploring for oil and gas in the Barents Sea.
Global Ideas: Why did Gazprom decide in 2012 to stop the Shtokman project?
Marcel Gubaidullin: The project became too expensive. The Shtokman reserves lie 600 kilometers off the coast of Murmansk. A helicopter with a full tank wouldn't make it there. So a temporary platform would have to be built on the open sea or an intermediate stop on the island of Nowaja Semlja. Besides, the water there is 340 meters deep. If you would place the Eiffel Tower on the bottom of the sea, it wouldn't even stick out of the water. And the deeper the reserves are, the more expensive it becomes. In addition, it's very stormy there with waves up to 27 meters high, with temperatures fluctuating over the year between minus 55 and plus 35 degrees Celsius. So you can't build a standard platform in those conditions. All that makes it quite expensive to extract gas from the Shtokman field.
Scientists have warned that climate change too would create problems in tapping the Shtokman reserves. For example, more icebergs would break from the Arctic ice that could destroy the platform. A study by the Russian weather service Rosgidromet in 2007 showed that icebergs could not stop the project but they would raise costs by some $30 billion.
We have taken into account that icebergs emerge around the Shtokman fields. But the situation isn't so bad. There isn't any continuous ice there. Drifting ice could pose a danger. That's why the platform is meant to be a floating body like a ship and not a frame that will be fixed on the ocean bed. Then the platform could avoid an iceberg.
Each of the four planned platforms are meant to be as long as three football fields. But surely it's not that easy to shift a platform?
An iceberg isn't especially quick either. You can plan for it.
And what about the network of cables that are meant to be under the platform to pull up the gas and gas condensate? And what about the pipelines that's meant to transport all that to land?
The underwater conveyer facility and the pipes that are meant to transport the extracted gas lie on the ocean bed. An iceberg can't reach that deep.
A further problem for the Shtokman project is said to be that there aren't enough buyers for the gas. Initially, a large part of the extracted gas was meant to be delivered to the US in the form of liquid gas. The International Energy Agency however says in its 2012 world energy report that the US will be self-reliant. What does that mean for the project?
North America began to drill for quite a lot of shale gas and crude oil. The US claims that it doesn't need to import liquid gas from other countries or from the Shtokman fields. But Russia has a lot of other export contracts. The gas could go to western Europe, even to Germany. And to Asia.
There are rumors that Russia doesn't want to share its resources with other countries.
We do share our resources as long as the market is of use to us. Russia alone could never use up the gas from the Shtokman fields.
Do you think the Shtokman reserves will ever be extracted and used or will the project be on ice and the gas remain under the Arctic ice forever?
The Shtokman Development consortium believes that the project has a future. I personally think that the massive energy reserves in the Russian Arctic sector offer good perspectives, not just the Shtokman reserves but even for example the Kara Sea. Gas is the most environmentally-friendly fossil fuel. At the moment, however, it is too expensive to build the infrastructure for the Shtokman project. But we're not in a hurry.
What do you think needs to happen so that it's worth it to realize the Shtokman project? And by when does that need to happen?
The implementation of such a huge proposed project has to be profitable - that means it must bring profits for the participants. In this case, that's Russia, investors, and a consortium. That could be achieved by lowering the costs for the technology and minimizing ecological and other risks. In addition, a fixed price for suppliers and buyers has to be secured so that we have long term gas consumers.