Natural gas superpower Russia struggles to connect millions of people to the network

Vitaliy Gobrik, a 46-year-old energy worker, stood at a lookout point above the city of Chita in Siberia and surveyed the rapidly expanding suburbs, where the landscape was filled with thousands of low-rise chimneys.

“Getting out of poverty, people burn coal and wood… but they also burn rubber, garbage, waste oil, wooden sleepers,” Gobrick said, as the smoke was sinking into the skyline below. “They put everything they can find in those stoves.”

Chita is one of many large cities in Siberia that are not yet connected to Russia’s domestic gas network. Instead, coal-fired power stations heat the city center, while suburban residents burn furnaces to protect against cold temperatures, causing some of the worst air pollution in Russia.

Although Russia is the world’s largest natural gas exporter, as a Energy superpowers on the global stageAt home, it has been working hard to connect its vast land to the domestic network. The entire time zone has been left behind.

Only 11 of Russia’s 85 administrative regions are fully connected to the natural gas pipeline network; about one-third of the settlements are unconnected. In the vast Siberian Federal District with 17 million inhabitants, only 17% of settlements have access to pipeline natural gas.

“Even a gas mask can’t save you.” Chita resident Elvira Cheremnykh hung a handwritten poster outside her home describing how the neighbour’s toxic smoke harmed her health © Polina Ivanova/FT

The state-owned gas giant Gazprom, which has been responsible for expanding the country’s main infrastructure since the 2000s, said it plans to build all “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 reasonable”. Many areas are too remote and sparsely populated to make financial sense for costly projects. “In most cases, Gazprom’s argument makes sense,” Yushkov said.

But he added that there are still many areas that should be connected.

“Natural gas is not only a commodity, it is also an element of social justice,” Yushkov said. “In terms of natural gas reserves, we are the largest country in the world… and many people do not have natural gas even if they live along the main export pipeline. Frankly speaking, people are very angry.”

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

According to Gazprom’s pipeline expansion plan by 2025, Chita is about 5,000 kilometers or more than four days by train from Moscow, bordering China and Mongolia, and has not appeared in Gazprom’s recent proposal.

Konstantin Ilkovsky, who served as the governor of the region until 2016, realized that natural gas was the top priority when he first moved to Chita, and wondered why his The clothes will turn smoky gray. “Everyone got gasoline, and we were left behind like some abandoned people,” he said. “I am personally outraged.”

Irkovski lobbied Moscow to build a natural gas pipeline and is committed to expanding storage facilities for liquefied natural gas that can be transported by tankers.

“When there is no wind and the temperature is below freezing-which means that the power plant is burning coal at full capacity-the city is covered by coal dust,” he said. “This is what people breathe.”

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

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

But in meetings with Gazprom and other authorities, Irkowski was told that the population of his area-just over 1 million-was too small to be economically able to build pipelines.

Irkowski disagreed. “There is no choice but natural gas. We are a natural gas superpower. Even arguing whether we need to connect these areas to the network is interesting,” the former governor said.

Chita is located in the basin, where the two rivers meet, and the surrounding hills are shrouded in polluted air. Chita pensioner Elvira Cheremnykh said that in the summer, smoke from nearby forest fires was trapped above the city.

The 69-year-old Cheremnykh lives in a one-room wooden house. She uses logs for heating if she can afford it. With coal, “you will end up being completely black like the devil,” she said. On a particularly toxic day, she was standing on the snow outside her home, and the air was filled with the smell and taste of sulfur, gasoline and soot. .

However, she said that her neighbor would burn anything they could find, and their chimney was just outside her window. “Breathing is impossible… everything ends here,” she said. “You need a gas mask. Even that won’t save you.”

Chita is a city with 1.1 million inhabitants and is not connected to Gazprom’s domestic natural gas pipeline network

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

In the 1990s, a company affiliated with Yukos Petroleum Corporation formulated a plan to build a pipeline along a section of the Trans-Siberian Railway to transport natural gas to cities in the region. Ravil Geniatulin said 17 years.

“This project is really about to begin,” Geniatulin recalled in a room in the Chita City Archives. “Maybe the file still exists somewhere-the map, beautiful, where you can see the pipe drawn in blue.”

He said that in the mid-2000s, these plans and Yukos itself were confiscated by the government. Its chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) was sentenced to prison.

Announcement of construction works Gazprom’s huge Power of Siberia pipelineTransporting natural gas to China from an oil field only 500 kilometers away from Chita once again brought hope to the city. But a different route was chosen for the pipeline.

Vladimir Kurbatov, Chita security guard and Communist Party member

Vladimir Kurbatov, Chita security guard and Communist Party member: “I have seen the lives of the people in western Russia. It is very clean and all uses natural gas.” ©Polina Ivanova/FT

Plans are under way for the second Siberian power pipeline to pass through Mongolia to China. “However, we were skipped again,” Chita city security and Communist Party member Vladimir Kurbatov (Vladimir Kurbatov) pointed out, who had picked up the local government over natural gas supply and air pollution.

Kurbatov said that many people, including himself, have given up the idea of ​​laying natural gas pipelines, but they still yearn for cleaner air. He hopes that the authorities will build the processing plants and storage infrastructure needed for Chita to use LNG, but he doubts whether the government-led clean air plan for the city can achieve its goals.

“I have seen the way of life of people in western Russia,” Kurbatov said. “It’s very clean, all gas is used… and here we breathe the whole Mendeleev [periodic] periodic table. “

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