The Shtokman gas field, located in the Barents Sea, 600km off the Arctic coast, is the embodiment of unconventional gas. Russia’s Gazprom, Norway’s StatoilHydro, and France’s Total are planning to collaborate to access the field, which is the farthest offshore and most ice-exposed of any ever slated for exploitation. The prize they are after is an estimated four trillion cubic metres of natural gas, the second largest field in the world, and enough to provide for Europe’s current level of gas usage for fifty years.
The plan to extract it is to use a ship-shaped floating platform capable of facing towards incoming ice, which will also be broken up by accompanying icebreakers. In the event of ice too heavy to manage, the platform will be able to disconnect from the undersea well and move out of the way. From the platform, a 600km pipeline would have to run to shore. If you want confirmation that the world is running out of cheap and easily-accessible fossil fuels, you need look no further than projects like this. The risk and capital costs they involve are tremendous, and evidence that companies are now attracted by reserves that would once have been written off as too remote and technically difficult to access.
Of course, when it comes to climate change, it is the total quantity of fossil fuels burned that matters. Giving Europe another fifty years of gas will inevitably add to those cumulative emissions. Indirectly, it will also perpetuate the fossil-fuel-powered status quo, delaying the deployment of renewable low-carbon options. Finally, continued dependence on Russian-controlled gas deepens Europe’s geopolitical vulnerability. As long as Europe depends on Russia to keep people from freezing in the winter, they will be unable to effectively criticize its increasing authoritarianism or aspirations for regional control over former Warsaw Pact states. Those Eastern European states, in turn, face an increased risk of Russian dominance.