Thawing permafrost jeopardizes massive maze of Russian pipelines

Russia's oil and gas pipelines may bend before they break as the ground beneath them shrinks. Climate change is thawing much of the country's permafrost, which holds up vital oil and gas networks in the upper reaches of West Siberia and in other northern locales.

Permafrost, a perpetually frozen subterranean soil mix, blankets about a quarter of the land in the Northern Hemisphere and encompasses 60 percent of Russia's territory. Unlike snow or ice, permafrost consists of soil and can't melt entirely, just as a frozen chicken wouldn't melt away on your countertop. It can, however, shrink or swell with changing temperatures, affecting the structures built atop it.

"When you put something on the ground in a permafrost region, eventually it will end up underground," said Dmitry Streletskiy, a research scientist at George Washington University and an expert on permafrost and climate change. "When permafrost is warming -- maybe not even thawing -- it won't be able to support as much weight."

That can cause oil pipelines to slouch as the ground recedes in a process called subsidence. A separate phenomenon, frost heaving, can cause vertical pipeline supports or "piles" to rise in icier areas, Streletskiy explained. If pronounced enough, the ground level differences can warp steel pipelines until they break.

Soil subsidence may have contributed to the 1994 pipeline accident near Usinsk in northern Russia, which spewed more than 160,000 tons of oil in one of the largest land spills ever.


Correcting pipeline damage and deformations costs the Russian oil and gas industry $1.8 billion annually, according to a 2010 Greenpeace report. The study stated there are 35,000 pipeline accidents a year in oil-rich West Siberia.

"When the permafrost melts, you get the destruction of infrastructure, and that's going to become a greater and greater concern all over Russia in terms of its built infrastructure for oil," said Deborah Gordon, a nonresident senior associate in the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Pipelines are particularly vulnerable to climatic variations because they cover such great distances -- more than 215,000 miles in Siberia alone. OAO Gazprom's Unified Gas Supply System spans nearly 100,000 miles and crosses everything from bedrock to ice. The Russian oil giant recently announced it would spend an additional $17 billion to expand its South Stream pipeline project to bring gas to southeastern Europe via the Black Sea.

But some analysts have criticized Russia's approach to marketing its oil and natural gas, particularly its vast expenditures on infrastructure. More tellingly, Russia's government is becoming increasingly dependent on oil and gas revenues to balance its budget. And because Russia is a price taker for oil, it has surprisingly little influence on the world market despite being the world's largest oil producer.

"As goes the price of oil, goes the fate of Russian stability," Gordon said.

Sink or swim

Permafrost may be thawing faster than previously expected, according to a U.N. Environment Programme study released during last year's climate change talks in Doha, Qatar (ClimateWire, Nov. 27, 2012). Carbon dioxide and methane trapped in the frozen soil, once released, could accelerate the warming trends already witnessed in the Arctic.

"If you didn't think pipelines could swim, you'll see it in Russia," said Thane Gustafson, senior director of Russian and Caspian energy for IHS CERA and author of the new book "Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia." "The Russians are very familiar with permafrost, and they have developed engineering techniques to deal with permafrost -- but that's when you're building on it, not sinking into it," he added during a panel last week at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

Gustafson warns that declining Soviet-era infrastructure coupled with shrinking oil rents could combine to destabilize Russia if nothing is done.

But while the thought of swimming pipelines paints a vivid picture, "floating" pipes are only occasionally observed in wetlands in northern West Siberia, according to Gazprom. The state-owned Russian company attributes that phenomenon not to climate change but to insufficient weight-ballast placed on the 30- to 40-year-old pipes, an issue that the company's subsidiaries fix whenever it comes up.

"Monitoring the state of permafrost soil in Western Siberia has not yet identified [trends] to their melting beyond the scope of regular oscillations," Gazprom said in a statement, adding that "permafrost in the region will continue for many decades, even under the most adverse of the available forecast scenarios of climate change on the planet."

But Oleg Anisimov, head of the climatological department of Russia's State Hydrological Institute in St. Petersburg and an expert on permafrost, dismissed Gazprom's statement as linguistic sleight of hand. "Permafrost is something that was developing over millennial time scales, and it will not disappear in a click," he said. "But what happens when climate becomes warmer? This is what Gazprom doesn't take into account: They treat climate change as climate variation."

Pipelines designed in the 1970s or '80s were built to withstand standard temperature deviations as a buffer against sinking into the permafrost during warmer seasons. But the temperature increases brought on by climate change could test the limits of old pipelines and leave Gazprom's emergency response strategy overwhelmed.

Such a drastic deterioration wouldn't happen overnight. Anisimov has suggested that Gazprom, one of the world's largest companies, may delay any expensive, large-scale renovations until they become an economic imperative.

"It's a cost-benefit analysis," he said. "How much will it cost to reinforce the structure [versus] how much will it cost to fix the problems if something goes wrong?"

Streletskiy pointed out that it would take just "one major spill" for the Russian oil industry to re-examine its pipeline infrastructure. Still, the George Washington University researcher is optimistic that Russian oil and gas producers will shore up pipelines in West Siberia before any disasters. He thinks they will turn to relatively inexpensive options such as thermosyphons, which use continuous evaporation and condensation to protect permafrost. Thermosyphons have been used successfully in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and on several northern roads.

"Maintaining a pipeline system is much cheaper than replacing it, so I'm sure these solutions will be implemented eventually," Streletskiy said.

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