RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
All this week we're taking you to the Arctic. A number of countries are battling for territory and resources there, but they face the reality that developing that icy region for oil and gas may be years away and also very expensive. NPR's David Greene is covering the Russian side of this story. He's been based in Moscow for the last two years. But as it happens, and happily, he's going to be with us for the next several weeks here on MORNING EDITION. So David, I just want to say welcome...
DAVID GREENE, Host:
Well, thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: In 2007, Russians planted a Russian flag at the North Pole. Now, that was quite a statement.
GREENE: Yeah, it was quite a moment, and Russian leaders have been making these types of bold claims and promises about how the Arctic really most of it belongs to them and how exploring the Arctic can be a real boost to the Russian economy. But there are a lot of questions, Renee, about the environmental consequences of their plans and also about whether they're even being realistic about what they can do in the Arctic.
And one place I visited recently was the Nenets region. It's about the size of Florida and it's way above the Arctic Circle. The size of Florida, but only 40,000 people, and so it's this vast, empty green tundra. There are very few roads. You have to get anywhere by taking a plane or a boat.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT)
GREENE: I'm on this little metal speedboat flying across the Pechora River. This river cuts across hundreds of miles of empty green and sandy tundra and the river empties into the Arctic Ocean just north of here. Now, what the Russian government wants you to believe is this might seem like the northern border of Russia, but actually they say that underwater, underneath the Arctic Ocean, there's a mountain range - the Lomonosov Ridge - that extends all the way up to the North Pole. They say it shows that Russia continues north underwater.
Russian scientists are up in the Arctic Ocean now collecting evidence. And the Russian government, this is part of their battle to claim ownership of the Arctic - the oil, the natural gas, and establish their dominance.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
GREENE: We've climbed off the boat and stopped on the land in this little village with a smattering of wooden houses.
YURI TYULYUBAYEV: People are happy that we have oil, because this is, obviously that we have more work, we have more profit. We have everything.
GREENE: In many ways, Yuri Tyulyubayev is a poster child in Russia's campaign for Arctic energy. The father of three arranges travel for the oil industry. And if Russia can explore for oil and gas in more of the Arctic and attract foreign energy companies, Tyulyubayev's small business could thrive. This area where he grew up had always been unspoiled.
TYULYUBAYEV: It's a very, very reindeer region because we have more than 150,000 reindeers for 40,000 people.
GREENE: And now there are a growing number of oil and gas companies - Russian firms, also companies from the U.S. and Vietnam. For now, they're exploring for oil and gas onshore, but Russian leaders say they're ready to explore offshore as soon as this winter, and Tyulyubayev says the more money and business that come to this region, the better. As for harming the environment?
TYULYUBAYEV: Of course, we worry. But I would not say that this is the first worry in our life. The economical life is much more important for people.
GREENE: Russia has the world's longest Arctic coastline - 10,000 miles, stretching from Europe almost to Alaska. It's a remote, pristine place that has the scars of history. The commercial heart is the city of Murmansk up by the northern tip of Norway. This port city, industrialized by the Soviets, was pummeled by Hitler's forces during World War II. The Arctic was also one of Joseph Stalin's favorite places to torture people in gulags that dotted the usually snowy landscape.
NADEZHDA LYASHENKO: (Singing in foreign language)
GREENE: Indigenous people, like the Saami tribe, bore much of the brunt. They were forcibly collectivized on farms under Stalin. Nadezhda Lyashenko, the Saami woman singing tribal music here, recalls how her grandfather, a reindeer shepherd, was shot in 1937. He was accused of being a spy after he crossed into Finland chasing a reindeer herd.
LYASHENKO: (Singing in foreign language)
GREENE: After decades of relative peace, Lyashenko says, her native Arctic is now entering a new era of horror. She sees Russia and other world powers in this race for oil and gas, ignoring what the disturbance could do to a part of the Earth that's rarely been touched.
LYASHENKO: (through translator) The Arctic is just so fragile. This time, it's a research boat going out there. It's like the prick of a needle and the land will heal. But if they go with knives, with spears, they could break everything. And then what?
GREENE: Russia is signaling it means business. The government seems bent on militarizing the Arctic. They announced recently that two army brigades, several thousand troops, will be on the way soon to patrol the north. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in a speech to the country's ruling United Russian Party this summer, vowed to open the Arctic Ocean for offshore development. He also announced plans to build a new year- round port on the Yamal Peninsula in the center of Russia's north coast. Sure, Putin says, Russia will consult with other Arctic countries, but he adds, Russia will be...
VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Russian spoken)
GREENE: ...firm and persistent in protecting its interests.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GREENE: Konstantin Simonov heads the National Energy Security Fund, a Russian think-tank that consults with oil and gas companies. He says the Arctic is this political gift for Putin. As Soviet power fades into memory, Putin can say here's one part of the world where Russia still calls the shots.
KONSTANTIN SIMONOV: With the help of Arctic, Putin can show to people that Russia is still a serious power.
GREENE: The risk, Simonov says, is false expectations. Many of the offshore oil and gas projects are at least a decade away from bringing economic benefit, assuming they succeed. Yet Russians who live above the Arctic Circle are growing excited. They look to neighboring Norway or to Alaska, where citizens share in oil profits, and they believe their time has come.
Simonov thinks about one desolate village, Teriberka. It's on the coast near the Norwegian border. People there were told that as soon as a new offshore gas deposit, known as the Shtokman Field, is explored, their community will get a new natural gas processing plant and plenty of jobs.
SIMONOV: I can understand those people, because they have no other alternative but to dream that our plans to develop Arctic will be realistic.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: I went to find this village, Teriberka, and it was 100 miles driving across empty tundra, and got here and this is a really struggling place. I'm standing in the center and it's dirt roads, maybe 700 or so people who live in this old Soviet housing that's crumbling.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Andrei Udin was fixing up an old car, listening to dance music that was filling the empty streets.
ANDREI UDIN: (Russian spoken)
GREENE: Hope is hard to come by here. Udin hasn't worked for years. There are no jobs. He has liked the tough talk from Prime Minister Putin, this promise to fight for Arctic territory. What's ours should be ours, Udin says, proudly patriotic. But after years of delay, he's beginning to wonder if that natural gas processing plant that's been promised is really ever coming.
UDIN: (Russian spoken)
GREENE: If I don't have a job, natural gas does nothing for me, Udin says. I can't exactly use the gas as food.
Frustration is growing around this village. People are beginning to say unless the oil and gas riches will be shared here, maybe leave our Arctic alone. This beautiful nature is really all we have.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: And you can explore some maps to see how shrinking Arctic ice intersects with growing global ambitions at our website, NPR.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: This is NPR News.