The Siberian Energy Rush

Global warming is opening up the Arctic Circle, and Russia would like to control its bounty of natural resources. An exclusive dispatch from the Yamal Peninsula, where reindeer give way to railroads and gas rigs every day.

The Siberian Energy Rush
Photograph by Frederick Taer Photograph by Frederick Taer

Old but sturdy, our Russian helicopter flies low over the endless flatness of the Siberian taiga, the MiG’s incessant whine barely softened by Styrofoam plugs wedged into my ears. We pass thick stands of pine trees, where brown bears lurk, and rust-colored rivers whose banks are dappled with ice. Hundreds of ponds and lakes glint beneath low-hanging clouds. Then the forests give way to pale-green tundra, soggy with snowmelt in midsummer. I’m traveling into the northernmost reaches of Siberia on this July morning, courtesy of Gazprom, the world’s leading producer of natural gas. After two months of negotiations and a thorough background check by the Federal Security Bureau — the successor to the KGB — company officials have agreed to let me see what is perhaps their most ambitious project ever. My destination is the Bovanenkovo gas field, halfway up the Yamal Peninsula, a 435-mile-long finger of tundra above the Arctic Circle.


The peninsula is one of the last frontiers of Russia, a vast wilderness covered in permafrost, nearly devoid of roads or permanent settlements, and divided by huge, ice-choked rivers navigable just six weeks a year. In the language of the Nenets, an indigenous tribe of reindeer herders that has lived here for more than a thousand years, yamal means “the end of the world.” The temperature drops to -58 degrees Fahrenheit during the eight-month winters, with blinding blizzards that can cut the peninsula off from the rest of Russia for weeks. In the summer, the terrain turns into an impenetrable bog, thick with mosquitoes and other pests. The Kara Sea, which borders Yamal, is one of the world’s coldest; in winter, it is a solid block of ice.

Years ago, geologists and engineers verified the existence of rich natural-gas deposits at Bovanenkovo through three-dimensional seismic imaging and exploratory drilling into the permafrost. Then, beginning in 2008, Gazprom brought in building supplies and constructed a 684-mile-long pipeline under the frigid Kara. With an estimated 4.9 trillion cubic meters of gas buried under the permafrost, Bovanenkovo has been described by company officials as one of the largest natural-gas finds in Gazprom history, although not as big as the Urengoy field, which is also in Siberia. “If Gazprom closed all its other gas fields and was pumping just from here,” I am told by my escort, Andrei Teplyakov, the youthful press officer for Gazprom’s Siberian operations, “the company could survive for more than a decade.”

The Bovanenkovo field is scheduled to begin producing natural gas in 2012, and the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous. At least one leading expert believes that Urengoy will run out of gas within the next decade or two, which means that exploiting Bovanenkovo will be essential if Russia is to remain a top global producer. (In 2008, Gazprom produced 549.7 billion cubic meters of natural gas, accounting for 17% of worldwide production.) Gazprom, which is 50.1% owned by the Russian government and which enjoys a near-monopoly over the country’s natural-gas production, accounted for 10% of Russia’s gross domestic product in 2008.

The conquest of Yamal is the leading edge of Russia’s determined effort to control the valuable natural resources north of the Arctic Circle, now more accessible thanks to global warming. The United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark are also looking northward, tantalized by reports of the treasure buried beneath Arctic ice. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that one-fifth of the world’s undiscovered but recoverable oil and gas may lie in this region. That’s 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural-gas liquids for the taking, worth some $15 trillion based on today’s market prices. The battle for this treasure trove is more than just a financial matter, though. Natural gas accounts for 22% of U.S. energy consumption, a figure expected to increase by 13% over the next 20 years, according to government projections. Whoever controls the Arctic controls a resource that will only become more precious. And for now, Russia is leading the way.

Until recently, most of this territory was terra incognita, protected by giant ice floes and gelid temperatures. But that is all changing. Siberian rivers above the Arctic Circle now take longer to freeze. The average thickness of polar ice diminished from 11.5 feet to 6.5 feet between 1975 and 2010. Scientists predict that by 2040 large sections of the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during the summer, rendering them as navigable as subarctic bodies of water such as the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

All of this has opened up a new kind of race. In September 2008, for the first time, a cargo vessel journeyed west from Montreal through Canada’s Northwest Passage to deliver supplies to remote villages in the northern territory of Nunavut. “I didn’t see one cube of ice,” a ship manager told a reporter. Earlier this year, Sovcomflot — a Moscow-based, government-owned gas-and-oil shipping giant — and Novatek, Russia’s second-largest natural-gas producer, announced plans to launch two experimental summer voyages: Cargo ships will transport condensed natural gas from Murmansk to China via Russia’s Northern Sea Route, through the Bering Strait and around the Kamchatka Peninsula. The ultimate goal, company officials say, is to carve a northern shipping route between Hamburg and Shanghai that would be about one-third the distance of the 11,430-nautical-mile Suez Canal route. So far, few non-Russian countries or companies have expressed interest in the plan, because nobody wants to depend on Russia’s fleet of icebreakers for assistance if they get stuck. (Each ship costs as much as $80,000 a day to operate.) “If global warming continues, then ships will be able to cross without icebreakers, even during winter,” says Sergei Lespenov, a polar explorer and member of the Arctic faculty at the Sea Academy in St. Petersburg who recently returned from his 15th expedition to the North Pole.


This is why I am flying north, above the Siberian permafrost, to get a glimpse of this spectacular scramble for mineral wealth, at the very moment when the rest of the globe seems so focused on climate change and the need to move away from fossil fuels. This emerging frontier takes form three-and-a-half hours after we take off. Our helicopter swoops low over the first signs of civilization in several hundred miles: an asphalt road, a metal bridge, and a small river port choked with Gazprom derricks, cranes, and rusty barges flying Soviet-era hammer-and-sickle flags. (Change takes a while to reach Siberia.) My seatmate, a Nenets social worker who has hitched a ride on the flight to assist his fellow nomads in an ongoing environmental dispute with Gazprom, leans over me for a better view of the vast Bovanenkovo oil field. Suddenly, we are flying over a complex of drilling towers, electrical pylons, gas condensation facilities, water containers, gas wells, worker dormitories, administrative buildings, piles of shipping containers, pipelines, and countless other bits of infrastructure. Teplyakov, the Gazprom press officer, turns around in his seat. “It’s like landing on a space station, isn’t it?” he says.

Breaking the Ice

A few days before my Siberian trip, I visit a different port, a bit further south. Many of the ships that will navigate the newly open Arctic waters are designed by Aker Arctic Technology, in a nondescript office park at the New Port of Helsinki. President Mikko Niini takes me inside the company’s giant freezer, where we watch a scale-model oil tanker breaking through a miniature ice floe in a 75-meter-long pool. The scene looks like something my 5-year-old son might enjoy, but it’s serious business: Two executives from Samsung Heavy Industries — the Korean conglomerate that commissioned this design — are watching, too, staring up from the basement through the pool’s glass bottom.

Aker is the only private company in the world with such an ice-model testing lab. The $16 million facility uses saline spray that forms a soft granular slush on the pool surface, before freezing to the required thickness during the night, to replicate conditions in Arctic and sub-Arctic seas, including the “multiyear ice” found around the polar ice cap. Aker has pioneered a design for “double-acting vessels”: ships driven by an electric-powered azimuth propeller that can rotate 360 degrees, allowing them to smash through ice stern first, creating less friction and leaving less of a carbon footprint. “We found that the thrusters performed better when going backward in heavy ice ridges,” Niini tells me. “It was a much more energy-efficent way of breaking ice — we saw a 50% improvement [versus breaking it with the bow].”

This innovation has led to a new generation of cargo ships and oil tankers that can both break up ice and transport huge amounts of goods through polar regions. Today, Niini and his staff of 40 are working on several projects: a trio of “shuttle tankers” for Sovcomflot, which will transport crude oil from the new fields of the Pechora Sea to the Arctic port of Murmansk; an “Arctic ore carrier” that will take iron ore from Baffin Island, located in Nunavut territory in the Arctic Ocean of northern Canada; and the Aurora Borealis project, a scientific-research icebreaker commissioned by the European Union. The vessel will conduct scientific drilling, Niini says, “to see if there is anything in those untouched sediments — oil or gas — underneath the polar ice cap. Right now, we don’t have a clue what’s up there.”

Part of the reason for that ignorance is that the polar ice cap is a no-man’s-land beyond the territorial control of those five “Arctic nations” that border it (Russia, Denmark, Norway, the U.S., and Canada). During the past decade, however, most of these countries have launched mapping expeditions to determine whether they can legally lay claim to the region’s potential wealth. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was signed by 159 countries and went into effect in 1994, established an “economic exploitation zone” that extends 200 miles from the edge of the continental shelf for any coastal nation. (The U.S. never signed the treaty because of anti — UN sentiment in the Senate, but it abides by the convention.) A coastal nation has sole resource rights within this area. If a country can prove that part of the sea bottom is an extension of its continental shelf, it can expand its economic zone accordingly.

The U.S. has recently explored the Chukchi Plateau, an undersea ridge that extends 600 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, with the USS Healy — the only vessel for scientific research in the federal government’s 30-year-old fleet of three icebreakers (the others, the Polar Sea and the Polar Star, patrol and guard Arctic waters). But if the U.S. hopes to effectively explore the polar ice cap, a group of U.S. scientists and military officials admitted two years ago that the country’s aging fleet needs to be totally revamped, at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion. “We’re at a crisis point,” Admiral Thad W. Allen, then commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, told The New York Times. Yet there has been little enthusiasm in Congress for Arctic shipbuilding.


By contrast, Russia has a fleet of 25 icebreakers, including six nuclear-powered vessels that can punch through 7.5 feet of ice at a steady speed of 3 knots per hour. In 2007, the government added the world’s largest icebreaker, Fifty Years of Victory, a 25,000-metric-ton, 75,000-horsepower behemoth that took 18 years to construct and is powered by two nuclear reactors.

Since 2001, Russia has methodically built a case, through both seismic imaging and submarine exploration, that the Lomonosov Ridge — an underwater mountain range that practically touches the North Pole — is an extension of Russian territory. In August 2007, two Russian submersibles, Mir-1 and Mir-2, planted a rustproof titanium Russian flag on the seafloor, 14,000 feet beneath the North Pole, a symbolic expression of Russia’s reach that rival Arctic powers denounced as a “land grab.” “It was a total adventure,” says 71-year-old Artur Chilingarov, the bushy-bearded Russian parliamentarian and Arctic explorer who led the mission. Chilingarov is the public face of Russia’s Arctic drive. In the 1970s, he led a pioneering winter mission to Kharsavey, a port 500 miles from the North Pole, on the Kara Sea. A nuclear-powered icebreaker and another vessel delivered 4,000 tons of cargo to the Russian scientific team based in Kharsavey, establishing a winter supply route and making it possible to conduct year-round research on the peninsula. A friend of Vladimir Putin and a hero of both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, Chilingarov works from a spacious office at Moscow’s Duma that’s crammed with large maps of Siberia, a giant globe, wooden penguins, porcelain polar bears, and a scale model of the Mir-1. Russia expects to state its case for Lomonosov in 2012 before the United Nations. “We still have to prove that [the Lomonosov Ridge is part of Russia], but we’ve come very far,” Chilingarov says.

From Gulag to Gazprom

The gateway to the Yamal Peninsula is Nadym, a dreary town 1,357 miles northeast of Moscow. Joseph Stalin and his NKVD, or secret police, shipped 70,000 “enemies of the people” to slave labor camps in the vicinity during the 1930s and 1940s. Ruined barracks and the remains of razor-wire fences still can be found in the forests around Nadym. The gulag included a children’s camp for the exiled sons and daughters of those who ran afoul of the Soviet dictatorship.

The city was founded in 1972, shortly after a research team from the Soviet Union’s powerful Ministry of Gas (which became Gazprom in 1989) discovered natural-gas deposits nearby. Ever since, the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area has been slowly and inexorably civilized. In the early 1970s, volunteers from Komsomol, the Soviet youth organization, flocked north to construct the first worker housing; within a couple of years, the virgin tundra had been transformed into a sea of concrete housing blocks. Today, the Gazprom imprint is everywhere in this town of 46,000 people. There are Gazprom banks and a Gazprom airline. Statues of both Soviet Ministry of Gas officials and Gazprom founding fathers loom heroically in public parks and the town square. Gazprom employs much of the population and owns the local newspaper and TV station. Indeed, Nadym feels like a ’70s time warp, with the giant capitalistic enterprise a proxy for the Soviet state.

The assault on Bovanenkovo proper, 400 miles to the north, began in 2007. Two icebreakers carved out a path from Murmansk through the Kara Sea to Kharsavey. These were followed by a fleet of cargo vessels, which carried drilling parts, construction materials, and other supplies down the Se-Yakha River to Bovanenkovo. Laborers laid a railroad track north across the tundra, from Obskaya, to carry supplies overland to the gas field. “We investigated for five years before we started to build,” says Gazprom’s Teplyakov. “You don’t know where you are laying the track. In winter, it’s covered with ice. And when it melts, you see huge lakes.” Other Gazprom workers began constructing a pipeline across the bottom of Baydaratskaya Bay to link Bovanenkovo with the Trans-Siberian Pipeline, constructed between 1982 and 1984, that carries gas through Ukraine to Central and Western Europe.

After my helicopter flight from Nadym to Bovanenkovo, I was given a supper of pork cutlets and cabbage in the workers’ cafeteria, followed by a tour of the gas field. It was nearly 8 p.m., and the summer sun was still high in the sky. A Gazprom minibus took us down a strip of tarmac to a massive, 20-story drilling platform nicknamed Ekaterina. The giant drill sits on a steel track and moves up and down the tundra, burrowing wells several hundred meters apart, in clusters known as “bushes.” Pipes connecting the cluster of wells — each of which reaches into a pocket of gas at a different depth — will funnel the gas to a nearby condensate plant (still just a skeletal frame), and then to the main pipeline running to Baydaratskaya Bay. The permafrost goes down as far as 2,000 feet in Yamal, and drilling through it is “like penetrating concrete,” Gazprom engineer Vitaly Pirov tells me. He adds that natural gas under pressure in frozen pockets can thaw from the friction of the drill, “and then come up and explode… . It has happened several times.”


The 28-year-old arrived in Siberia five years ago, just after graduating university in the Caucasus. Pirov earns a monthly salary of 90,000 rubles ($3,000) and works on a one-month-on, one-month-off basis. During the summer, mosquitoes swarm the tundra, forcing Pirov to cover his face with a net and wear thick leather gloves at all times. In winter, when darkness sets in for 22 hours a day, harsh winds and 50-below temperatures can cause frostbite to exposed flesh in just a minute. Pirov protects himself with layers of insulated clothing, fur boots, and a woolen face mask. “In winter, you are just waiting for the day when you can go home,” he tells me. But strong winds and whiteout conditions can make it impossible to land a helicopter. “You can be stuck for many days.” Still, he says, “I am building the company. I am building Russia’s future. I am happy to be here.”

Reindeer Brigade Number 5

At 11 the next morning, I’m bouncing over the tundra in a Gazprom all-terrain vehicle known as a Trekol, designed, I’m told, to avoid damaging the fragile surface of the permafrost, a moss called yagel, which is the main food of reindeer. We’re heading for a nearby encampment of Nenets nomads, who are in the middle of their annual 340-mile migration from southern Yamal to frigid Kharsavey. Every July, like clockwork, these nomads drive their reindeer herds north to escape mosquito season, pushing across the boggy terrain on wooden sleds drawn by their strongest reindeer and packed with their belongings. In August, they head south again to the warmer taiga at the foot of the peninsula. This particular group follows a long-established corridor that leads right through the Bovanenkovo gas field and has become a growing source of tension. Gazprom initially refused to let us meet the Nenets, but after prodding by my translator, the company, to our surprise, agreed not only to drive us to them but also to let us spend a night unsupervised at their camp.

For centuries, the lives of the nomads followed a predictable rhythm, regulated by the changing seasons and the grazing patterns of their animals. They drove their herds — between several dozen and 300 reindeer per family — up and down the Yamal Peninsula, and they slaughtered and ate only those required for survival. Their animist religion stressed respect for the environment and its resources, and their egalitarian philosophy encouraged sharing of animals and food during times of scarcity. But after Stalin came to power, Soviet authorities confiscated the reindeer herds, divided the herders into so-called brigades, and forced them into meat-producing collectives to serve the state. Many gave up nomadic reindeer herding altogether, settling into permanent villages.

The collapse of the Soviet Union freed the Nenets from the strictures of collectivism. Many resumed their independent nomadic life, this time with a capitalist twist. Today, some 80% of the reindeer are privately owned. Every year, the Nenets drive their herds down to the market town of Yar-sale, between Nadym and Bovanenkovo. (Others continue to work for state-owned reindeer-meat farms.) At Yar-sale, they sell the animals to companies that slaughter the animals and freeze or can the meat for distribution in Russia, Finland, and beyond. (In case you’re wondering, a pound of reindeer burger will run you about $8 in Alaska.) The reindeer-meat business provides some of the Nenets herders with annual incomes of $10,000 — a sum unheard-of a decade ago.

The arrival of Gazprom’s natural-gas project in 2008 marked a new disruption. Today, the Nenets complain bitterly about being forced to divert their herds from routes they’ve used for more than a thousand years. Gravel and tarmac roads can destroy the sleds’ wooden skids, and the long detours that the Nenets are forced to make around Gazprom gas pipes, roads, and other infrastructure can add hours to their trek and even kill the weaker animals, especially after the snow melts and the tundra turns boggy. “This becomes a huge problem in summer,” says Yezingi Hatyako, 60, the Nenets social worker who flew up with me. “The Nenets are terribly unhappy about this.”

The 40 families of this group, known as Reindeer Brigade Number Five — from its days as a Soviet meat-producing collective — are packing when we arrive at the encampment, within sight of Gazprom’s new condenser plant and the 20-mile-long asphalt road. The families sleep in “chums” — canvas skins thrown over frames of long wooden poles. Wooden sleds laden with burlap sacks are scattered about, and small black huskies yap as I approach. (“They don’t like capitaliski,” one nomad quips.) One family has a small generator, which powers a DVD player and a microwave oven. Yelena, a plump 27-year-old, invites us inside for a meal with her husband and three children. I sit on deerskin and eat salted, raw reindeer meat while she boils lake fish in a kettle over an open fire; an aperture at the top of the chum provides the only ventilation, and the dark space soon fills with smoke.


Outside, one of the great dramas of Nenets life is in progress: the gathering of the reindeer from across the tundra. A few men and their dogs disappear over the horizon, and 15 minutes later, the entire herd — 5,000 snorting, grunting animals, with black clown eyes, patchy gray fur, thick hooves, and curvaceous antlers — miraculously coalesces into a single line moving toward the camp. Somehow, out of the thousands, the Nenets sledders pick out their own, lead them inside a corral, and then yoke them to their sleds. Alexei, a handsome 24-year-old wearing a deerskin coat, blue cotton pants, and high rubber boots, invites me to hitch a ride on his sled. I scramble aboard and the six-deer team begins dragging us through the waterlogged landscape, their large hooves sinking into the muck. After a couple of lashes from Alexei’s 10-foot stick, they break into a gallop, and I hold the sled tightly as we move at an exhilarating speed across the bog, the wind in my face. The animals pulling the sleds are the hardiest, while the remainder trot along behind or flank the sled teams, all bound for their inevitable fate as reindeer meat. The sled teams soon extend in a long line across the tundra: a scene of grandeur and beauty that not even the distant sight of Gazprom’s natural gasworks can diminish.

Half an hour later, tradition literally runs smack into industrial development: The lead team grinds to a halt before a steep embankment. Gazprom crews in red vests are laying down a 10-foot-wide sheet of insulation material across the tarmac road — part of the agreement the company has hammered out with social worker Hatyako’s outfit. It’s the first time that the method has been used to accommodate the Nenets of Reindeer Brigade Number Five, allowing them to avoid the miles-long detour around the road. (In the future, Gazprom is considering simply distributing the insulation material to the group and others that pass through its fields.) One by one, with cries of “hey hey hey,” the Nenets drive the reindeer across the road, their skids sliding with relative ease. Then they hurtle down the sandy embankment on the other side and continue the journey. A Gazprom team watches the scene quietly; a TV crew films the scene for a Nenets-language channel broadcast through the autonomous region. The Gazprom officials I’ve talked to insist that they’re bending over backward to placate the Nenets, but the nomads see matters differently. The sheet over the road is just “buying Gazprom some time,” one herder tells me. He believes that the company has plans to develop the whole peninsula and “soon there will be no land left for us,” he says. “The tundra is being destroyed by Gazprom, and there is nothing we can do. Can we get guns in our hands [and fight back]? That wouldn’t make sense.” Yelena, the young woman in whose chum we will spend the night, says, “Give us our land, and our reindeer. We don’t want Gazprom.”

It’s tempting to see the clash between the Nenets and Gazprom as a real-life Avatar, starring the nomads as the Na’vi and the Russian gas giant as the Resources Development Corporation, the rapacious conglomerate brutally extracting precious minerals from Na’vi forests. But the conflict isn’t that simple. The flow of oil and gas revenue to the Yamalo-Nenets region has brought social benefits the Nenets couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. “The deer herders understand that the budget of this district survives only on gas and oil,” Hatyako tells me. “They send their kids to school, they have hospitals. It’s a trade-off.” Every August, a government helicopter picks up some 2,000 Nenets children from across Yamal and flies them to a bilingual boarding school in Yar-sale, the main Nenets trading village on the peninsula. Many nomads have willingly given up their traditional lives, and even those who’ve remained on the tundra now enjoy the perks of modern culture.

Hatyako says that the Nenets sensed that their way of life was endangered long before Gazprom arrived in Yamal. Global warming was altering everything anyway. Two decades ago, the nomads could cross the Ob River, the powerful waterway that divides the peninsula from Nadym, in November. Now, the river doesn’t freeze thoroughly until December. Says Hatyako: “Twelve years ago, my mother, who is now 92, said, ‘What kind of life are you going to have? The climate is changing.’ We’ve known about global warming for a long time.” He adds, “Herding as a way of life is ending. Someday soon, it will die.”

A Warning From the Past

On the last day of my trip to the Yamal, I travel once again by helicopter, this time to Kharsavey, 100 miles north of Bovanenkovo. A subfreezing wind blows across the tarmac as we disembark. Sheets of ice cover the adjacent Arctic Ocean.

A minibus takes us 5 miles north, to the ruined compound of a previous expedition to the peninsula.


From 1976 to 2000, these seaside accommodations were the base of operations for hundreds of geologists, engineers, and support staff who traveled by helicopter and in Caterpillars across Yamal, conducting seismic testing to a depth of 10,000 feet. “They went all over the peninsula,” Albina Vishnyakova, who served as the cook on the expedition, tells me. “They investigated everything.” In 1998, when the bottom dropped out of the Russian economy, the project was abandoned. “The government ran out of money. The war in Chechnya was going on,” Vishnyakova explains. We wander past gutted dormitories and offices, with smashed windows and collapsed roofs. She leads me into the “House of Culture” and down a dark hallway past dangling wires and rusted pipes. Water drips from melting icicles that cling to the ceiling. The hallway spills into an auditorium where rusted spotlights point toward the proscenium. I stare through the murk at a large portrait hanging above the stage — Vladimir Lenin, his baleful gaze looking out toward a theater filled with ghosts. “We had Communist party meetings here,” Vishnyakova says. “We had talent shows, films, music concerts, even disco dancing.”

Back at the Kharsavey tarmac I visit Sergei Bobenko, in the most rudimentary of concrete-block headquarters. Bobenko is the deputy manager of production services of the Kharsavey gas field, “a gas field nearly as big as Bovanenkovo,” says Bobenko, which Gazprom plans to begin developing later this decade. He unveils a confidential Gazprom map of the Yamal Peninsula. The map is covered with black squares and blue ovals, marking exploration sites and gas fields that have been earmarked for development. The icons blanket the peninsula. After Kharsavey, Gazprom will expand its drilling across the peninsula. Shtokman might be next. The giant off-shore Arctic field, discovered in 1988, sits below the floor of the 1,000-foot-deep Barents Sea, 370 miles from Murmansk; it is estimated to contain 3.8 trillion cubic meters of gas. “Russia has enough oil and gas to supply Europe for the next 600 years,” Aker Arctic chief Mikko Niini told me in Helsinki. In Moscow, explorer Artur Chilingarov told me that Russia would launch a “major, 90-day expedition” this fall, using a nuclear-powered icebreaker and a fleet of academic vessels, “to research the outside border of the Russian shelf” and cement the country’s claim to the polar ice cap.

For Russia, the ruins of the Kara Sea Expedition stand as a cautionary tale, reminders of political volatility, economic fragility, and the mercilessness of the Arctic environment. But Bobenko’s map is the future. Slowly, inexorably, Gazprom is taming the Yamal Peninsula, with a dedication reminiscent of the Soviet military during World War II. The Russians have already looked failure in the face once here in Yamal. This time, they are determined to achieve a different result.

Joshua Hammer wrote “Combustible,” about Kurdish oil reserves in Iraq, for the April 2010 issue of Fast Company.

Browse the slideshow How the Siberian Energy Rush Is Affecting the Nenets Tribe