As the polar sea ice vanishes faster, Russia unveils plans to exploit Arctic riches: fossil fuel deposits, minerals and new shipping routes.
The Russian government has published ambitious plans to exploit the Arctic riches off its northern coast, opening up the polar region to exploitation with a fleet of 40 ships, new roads and railways and four enlarged airports.
The plans, posted in Russian on the official government website on 30 December and signed off by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, have been translated and reported by the independent Barents Observer newspaper, based in Norway.
The scale of the plans will alarm other Arctic nations, particularly Canada, the United States, Norway and Finland, which all have coastlines on the increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean.
None of these has the powerful nuclear-propelled ships required to compete with Russia’s existing fleet, let alone the new ones it intends to build.
Although the Russian plans will not be completed until 2035, because the scale of shipbuilding alone is enormous, work has already begun and many of the preparations are going forward this year with a regional geological survey being conducted to pinpoint the riches to be exploited.
“In the 21st century, there will be a maritime ‘gold rush’ to the upper latitudes once conditions permit”
The Barents Observer reports that the plan builds on decrees issued by President Putin from May 2018, and a request to boost annual shipments on the Northern Sea Route across the top of Siberia to 80 million tons by 2024.
Although Rosatom, the giant state-controlled nuclear company, is leading the push to exploit the Arctic, and has already led the way with a floating nuclear power station to help provide power, there are a host of other leading Russian companies involved.
The fact that they are mostly involved in fossil fuel extraction and mineral mining will send a shiver down the spine of all those who believe that the Arctic should be left alone – and that exploiting its potential riches will ensure the destruction of much of the planet through climate change.
The Russians, on the other hand, see the Arctic as their own backyard and climate change as a way of gaining both economic and financial advantage, because Siberia will become much warmer.
Enterprises involved include oil and gas companies Novatek, Gazprom Neft, Rosneft and the Independent Oil Company. In addition there are mineral and ore developers like Nornickel, VostokCoal, Baimskaya, KAZ Minerals, Vostok Engineering and Severnaya Zvezda.
The plans involve around 40 new vessels, several of them huge nuclear ice-breakers, designed to keep shipping lanes open in all circumstances. New railway lines, roads and bridges will be built in northern Siberia, with four airports upgraded to bring in supplies and people. Both companies and people will be encouraged by a special tax-free status for the region.
Exactly what is there to be exploited is not yet known. However, the Maritime Executive website has this to say: “What is generally understood is that there are vast resources to be harnessed. It is estimated that 30% of the world’s untapped hydrocarbons can be found in the Arctic, including a full 25% of proven hydrocarbon reserves.
“Much nickel, platinum, palladium, lead, diamonds, and other rare Earth metals are there as well. In the 21st century, there will be a maritime ‘gold rush’ to the upper latitudes once conditions permit.”
By coincidence the US Congressional Research Service put out an updated research paper on the Arctic on 20 December, discussing the tensions in the region.
Even before the latest Russian announcement there was concern in Washington that an Arctic takeover was planned. The document quotes US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo: “We’re concerned about Russia’s claim over the international waters of the Northern Sea Route, including its newly announced plans to connect it with China’s Maritime Silk Road.
“In the Northern Sea Route, Moscow already illegally demands other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply with its demands.
“Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness. It need not be the case. And we stand ready to ensure that it does not become so.”
As the ice in the region melts, it is clear that the tensions will continue to grow.
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