By BJ Bjornson
On the bright yellow tundra outside this oil town near the Arctic Circle, a pitch-black pool of crude stretches toward the horizon. The source: a decommissioned well whose rusty screws ooze with oil.
This is the face of Russia's oil country, a sprawling, inhospitable zone that experts say represents the world's worst ecological oil catastrophe.
The above is mostly the legacy of old wells and poor management from the Soviet days, but with the Arctic ice cover melting away, the rush to exploit the area for resources is picking up steam, and Russia is first off the mark, though they hardly alone.
Fifteen years in the building, the Prirazlomnaya drilling platform is 126 square metres, weighs 117,000 tons without ballast, and sits on a gigantic box of heavy steel designed to withstand the intense pressure of constantly shifting Arctic ice.
It took an icebreaker and three tugs to tow it from Murmansk to the drill site, a 10-day journey that ended Aug. 28. The voyage marked the beginning of a new, some say dangerous, era in the Arctic.
As Russia moves farther offshore to uncover the Arctic�s long-hidden treasures, its polar neighbours are following suit, and pressure is likely to build on Canada to follow suit.
Norway, a pioneer of drilling in harsh, icy conditions offshore, is pressing ahead with a 20-year plan to develop undersea Arctic fields despite public anger after an Icelandic cargo ship spilled an unknown amount of oil into a marine park in February.
Greenland approved exploratory oil drilling by a British firm this year in the waters shared by Canada�s eastern Arctic. So far, the $1-billion effort is a bust.
On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration approved Royal Dutch Shell's request to drill six exploration wells next year in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska, and is considering proposals for drilling in the nearby Beaufort Sea. The waters border Canada's Arctic.
The biggest issue regarding drilling in the Arctic is the nearly complete lack of any ability to deal with an oil spill or blowout thanks to a dearth of in-place infrastructure and ships capable of operating in the Arctic waters.
The BP Deepwater Horizon blowout last year in the Gulf of Mexico is the stuff of nightmares for opponents of offshore Arctic drilling.
While the well gushed for three months, some 40,000 people, working on more than 4,000 vessels, deployed thousands of kilometres of containment booms to fight the spill, said Alexander Shestakov at the World Wildlife Fund.
There aren�t enough ice-class vessels to match that armada in the event of a large Arctic spill, and booms are useless in waters thick with ice, he added.
Worse, should the spill happen during the long winter months, there won�t even be any ships or equipment likely able to reach it for months, little or no daylight to work in, and the oil will spread out under the ice to turn up all across the Arctic when the sea ice starts melting and moves along with the currents.
That however, is not the end of the problems the environment in the North is facing, more just a beginning.
A warming Arctic climate presents problems as well as opportunities. The Yamal peninsula, where Russia gets most of its natural gas for export to Europe, is laced with a network of pipes resting on permafrost.
If the ground melts, the pipelines could start to burst, causing untold damage to Russia�s economy as well as its environment.
At least 60 per cent of Russia, the world�s biggest country, is permafrost, or soil that�s at or below 0 deg C. Vast swaths of melting Siberian peat bogs would release massive amounts of methane, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is more than 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period.
Siberia isn�t the only place in the world with permafrost and pipelines running across it, and if oil and gas starts to be produced off the northern shore of Alaska and Canada, there will be a lot more pipelines joining the ones already there.
And for anyone thinking that we will do a better job in regulating the oil and gas industry in the Arctic than we have elsewhere, I can only offer this quote from a radio broadcast from last week.
Industry says it can monitor itself. Travis Davies (sp) works with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
"That's bigger than just wearing your protective equipment. That's training. That's understanding your assets. That's the kind of materials you use. Those things will all be considered as well. And I think appropriately so."
Drill ships will be far away from the nearest regulator. Industry analyst Doug Matthews wonders who's going to be making sure the companies follow the rules. The Canadian Labour Congress has complained that federal inspectors are poorly paid, don't have the experience, and often don't meet their quotas for inspections even on projects that are easy to access on land.
Industry can monitor itself? Sure, because that has always worked out so well in the past. The Arctic is soon going to find out, because our drive for oil and gas is going to override any and all other concerns.