Last Major Field Goes On Line: How Long Will Siberia's Gas Last?

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Europe depends on Russia for its natural gas, but, as Gazprom begins production at the last major field, it is unclear how much gas is left in Siberia. Developed fields are almost exhausted, and tapping new reserves involves huge technical difficulties.

The Russian gas industry was celebrating on Tuesday. At a ceremony in Moscow, Gazprom board chairman Dmitry Medvedev, who is widely expected to be the next president of Russia and the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, pressed a ceremonial button and the last major natural gas field in the world's most productive region went on line. A live video link showed footage from northwestern Siberia where the actual event was taking place, namely valves being opened.

The process, prosaic as it was, prompted executives in the energy industry to wax poetic. Burckhard Bergmann, the head of German energy conglomerate E.on-Ruhrgas, calls the site "Siberia's last pearl."

The new field, which is called Yuzhno-Russkoye, lies about 900 meters (2,953 feet) below the surface and contains more than 800 billion cubic meters (28.6 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas -- a number that seems inconceivably large and yet is ultimately very small. Yuzhno-Russkoye's entire reserves hardly amount to more than one year's worth of production for the entire Russian natural gas industry.

Demand for energy is growing, both domestically and abroad, and Russian energy forecasters predict Siberia will satisfy that demand. Alexander Grizenko, an advisor to the board of directors of Russian energy giant Gazprom, expects production volume to increase until 2030 when, according to his predictions, a peak level of well over 800 billion cubic meters a year will have been reached. Grizenko also emphasizes that the country will be able to maintain a very high level of production for another 30 years after that.

But Jean Laherrere, chief statistician at the Swedish-based Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, paints a completely different scenario. He believes that production will peak in only eight years and decline rapidly after that. According to Laherrere's prognosis, in 2060 -- when Russian visionaries predict that production levels will still be higher than they are today -- it will in fact be close to zero.

Who is right? The answer to this question will be critical to energy supply in Europe, which already buys close to half of its natural gas from Russia today -- a share that is expected to increase now that the North Sea gas fields are almost exhausted.

Russia's future is also closely linked to the future of its gas reserves. Natural gas is the central currency of the new economic miracle that has blessed this vast country stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Russia's gas reserves lie north of the Ural Mountains, in one of the world's most inhospitable regions. It's a flat wasteland, icebound in the winter and a swamp in the summer, where temperatures can drop to as low as -60° Celsius (-76° Fahrenheit) and climb as high as 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit).

Geologists estimate that about 150 million years ago, when the region was a warm ocean inlet, the bodies of dead creatures turned into dark sediments rich in organic matter. Over the course of the ensuing millions of years, the organic matter then turned into oil and natural gas reserves stored between layers of sandstone.

Siberia's gas fields supply much of Europe's energy.
DER SPIEGEL

Siberia's gas fields supply much of Europe's energy.

More than 50 years ago, when the first drilling teams arrived in what was then a virtually uninhabited region, the ground was so saturated with fossil fuels that some of the Soviet mining pioneers, along with their equipment, were blown up in explosions.

Sergei Chernezky, a spokesman for the Russian gas industry in the Siberian city of Yamburg, talks about one of these accidents as if it were the big bang that set off the region's energy bonanza. An explosion occurred near a town called "Little Birch Village," just as a drilling supervisor was about to enter his hut to document the fact that his team had found nothing. "All of a sudden it was clear that there was gas here," says Chernezky. "A lot of gas."

In 1966, scientists working near the Arctic Circle discovered what was then the largest-known natural gas field on earth: Urengoy. The field, 120 kilometers (75 miles) long, contained at least 10 trillion cubic meters (357 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas in the upper sediment layers alone. Father north, the Yamburg field was discovered a few years later, a hydrocarbon giant almost the size of Urengoy and containing vast reserves of methane and liquid condensed gas.

The first shipment was sent to Austria in 1968, and soon afterwards other Western countries began appearing on the Soviets' list of customers. The Soviet Union, still the West's political nemesis at the time, gradually became Europe's most important supplier of natural gas.

An energy highway unparalleled worldwide extends for 5,000 kilometers (3,108 miles) from western Siberia to European Russia and on to Western Europe. It consists of a dozen steel pipes, each up to one and a half meters (5 feet) in diameter and capable of handling an operating pressure of 70 to 90 bar. It takes about a week for a gas molecule to make the journey from Yamburg to Hamburg. Compressor stations placed at roughly 200-kilometer (124-mile) intervals maintain flow pressure.

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