Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

On a lookout point above the Siberian city of Chita, 46-year-old energy worker Vitaliy Gobrik explored its fast-growing suburbs, where the landscape abounds with thousands of layers of chimneys.

“Out of poverty, people burn coal, wood. . . but they also burn rubber, garbage, waste oil, wooden track sleepers, ”said Gobrik as smog descended in the skyline below. “They put anything they can get in those stoves.”

Chita is one of many large cities in Siberia that is not connected to Russia’s domestic gas network. Instead, coal-fired power stations heat the city center, while suburban residents ward off icy temperatures by firing furnaces, causing some of the worst air pollution in Russia.

Although Russia is the world’s largest gas exporter, it is flexing its muscles as a energy superpower on the global stage, at home it struggled to connect its large land mass to the domestic network. Entire time zones were left behind.

Only 11 of Russia’s 85 administrative regions are fully connected to the gas pipeline network; about a third of settlements are not connected. In the sprawling Siberian federal district, with 17 million inhabitants, only 17 percent of settlements have access to pipe gas.

Chita resident Elvira Cheremnykh stands outside her home

“Even a gas mask will not save you.” Chita resident Elvira Cheremnykh hung a handwritten poster outside her home describing how the neighbors’ harmful fumes are harming her health © Polina Ivanova / FT

The state-owned gas giant Gazprom, which has been responsible for expanding large-scale domestic infrastructure since the 2000s, said it planned to build all the “technically feasible” domestic pipelines by 2030.

Igor Yushkov, an analyst at the National Energy Security Fund think tank, said it would be more appropriate to use the term “economically justified”. Many areas are too remote and sparsely populated for expensive projects to make financial sense. “In most cases, Gazprom is justified when it makes this argument,” Yushkov said.

But many areas remain about what needs to be connected, he added.

“Gas is not just a commodity, it is an element of social justice,” Yushkov said. “We are the largest country in the world in terms of gas reserves. . . while many people are without gas, even when living along major export pipelines. To be honest, people are irritated. ”

The gaps in Russian gas coverage.  Map showing Russia's expected gas pipeline network by 2025

Chita, which lies about 5,000 km or more than four days by train from Moscow, which borders China and Mongolia, does not appear at all in Gazprom’s short-term proposals, according to the company’s pipeline expansion plans until 2025.

Konstantin Ilkovsky, the region’s governor until 2016, realized gas was a priority when he first moved to Chita and wondered why his clothes would be a soot gray color at the end of a workday. “Everyone got gas, while we stayed behind like some outcasts,” he said. “I personally felt resentful.”

Ilkovsky campaigned for a gas pipeline in Moscow and worked on the expansion of liquefied natural gas storage facilities.

“When there is no wind and temperatures are below freezing – which means the power plants burn coal fully – the city is covered with coal dust,” he said. “And that’s what people breathe.”

The Kovyktinskoye gas field near Irkutsk, linked to the Power of Siberia gas pipeline project

The Kovyktinskoye gas field near Irkutsk, which is linked to the Power of Siberia gas pipeline project © Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg

But in meetings with Gazprom and other authorities, Ilkovsky was told that his region’s population – at just over a million – was too low to make the construction of a pipeline financially viable.

Ilkovsky disagrees. “There is no alternative to gas. We are a gas superpower. “It’s just funny to even argue about whether we should connect these regions to the network or not,” the former governor said.

Chita lies in a basin, at the confluence of two rivers, and the surrounding hills include polluted air. During the summer, smoke from nearby forest fires is also trapped across the city, Chita pensioner Elvira Cheremnykh said.

Cheremnykh, 69, lives in a one-room wooden house that she heats with logs when she can afford it. With coal, “you end up completely black like the devil,” she said as she stood on a particularly toxic day in the snow outside her home, the air smelling and tasting a mixture of sulfur, gasoline and soot .

However, her neighbors burn everything they can get, she said, and their chimney comes up right outside her window. “It is impossible to breathe. . . everything ends up in here, ”she said. “You need a gas mask, and even that will not save you.”

Chita, a city of 1.1 million inhabitants, is not connected to Gazprom's domestic gas pipeline network

Chita, a city of 1.1 million inhabitants, is not connected to Gazprom’s domestic gas pipeline network © Polina Ivanova / FT

In the 1990s, businesses affiliated with the Yukos oil company developed a plan to build a pipeline along a stretch of the Trans-Siberian Railway, bringing gas to the region’s cities, said Ravil Geniatulin, who is governor of Chita and the greater Zabaikalsky Krai region was, said. for 17 years.

“The project was about to start,” Geniatulin recalled from a room in the Chita City Archives. “Maybe the documents still exist somewhere – maps, beautiful, where you can see the pipeline drawn in blue.”

In the mid-2000s, the plans fell apart, he said, along with Yukos himself – which was seized by the government. CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been jailed.

The announcement of the construction of Gazprom’s massive Power of Siberia pipeline, which brings gas for export to China from a field located just 500 km from Chita, has once again raised hopes in the city. But another route was chosen for the pipe.

Vladimir Kurbatov, a Chita security guard and member of the Communist Party

Vladimir Kurbatov, a Chita security guard and member of the Communist Party: “I have seen people living in Western Russia. It’s all clean there, everything uses gas’ © Polina Ivanova / FT

Plans are being made for a second Power of Siberia pipeline to China via Mongolia. “However, we’re left over again,” said Vladimir Kurbatov, a Chita security guard and member of the Communist Party, who spoke to the local government about gas supplies and air pollution.

Kurbatov said many gave up on the idea of ​​gas pipelines, he included, but they were still desperate for cleaner air. He wants the authorities to build the processing plants and storage infrastructure needed for Chita to run on LNG, but is skeptical that a government-led clean-up program for the city will achieve its goals.

“I saw people living in Western Russia,” Kurbatov said. “Everything is clean there, everything with gas. . . While we breathe the whole of Mendeleev here [periodic] table of elements. “

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