In Russia's Great North, hope for the future smells of gas

3rd November 2010, Comments 0 comments

With its boat graveyard, abandoned cars and insalubrious houses, Teriberka may look like a ghost town, but its 700 residents still hold out hope it will turn into the hub of a massive gas project, as they were promised long ago.

At the very edge of the Kola peninsula, on Russia's northwestern tip, Teriberka has been waiting for years to become the landing point for the gas to be extracted some 560 kilometres (347 miles) out in the icy Barents Sea, on the gigantic Shtokman field.

The field, one of the largest in the world was discovered in 1986 and holds much promise for the town, which was home to some 10,000 people in the 1960s before coastal fishing went bust.

But its development has run into delays and difficulties, challenging the patience of the inhabitants.

So far, they have hardly seen a hint of the jobs and investments promised by the project partners, Russia's Gazprom, France's Total and Norway's Statoil.

"When this site was chosen, a lot was promised to the local population. Up to now, none of it has materialised," said mayor Valery Yarantsev, whose colourful character clashes with the town's graying buildings.

"Our district is as large as Belgium but our budget is the equivalent to the weekly sales of a Belgian petrol station," he said ironically, sitting in his decrepit office.

The mayor, who has just been dismissed from his functions following allegations he misused municipal funds, is no stranger to controversy.

Before he was elected under the Communist banner, he was the captain of a fishing trawler, the Elektron. In 2005, he suddenly rose to fame by fleeing the Norwegian coast guard, taking captive two Norwegian fisheries inspectors who had boarded his ship.

Lost at the end of an unpaved road, Teriberka is now meant to receive the first of what is believed to be up to 3,800 billion cubic metres of gas encased in the Shtokman field through an underwater pipeline in 2016, three years behind schedule.

The town's fate is actually being played out thousands of kilometers (miles) away, in the United States.

The United States recently started exploiting shale gas, which comes from deep reserves thought inaccessible until the advent of new drilling methods.

Shale gas is a step towards energy self-sufficiency in the United States, and its rapid growth could put a damper on importing gas, hence threatening the expensive and complex Shtokman project.

In a former postal centre converted into an office with a leaking roof, the head of Shtokman Development, one of few to wear a suit and tie in Teriberka, tries to be reassuring.

The project will bring "many hundreds of millions of dollars," said Nikolay Bereznoy.

"This village will become a nice little town," he added

A quick look out his window shows there will be a long road ahead: the school and other buildings are abandoned, shipwrecks decorate the shore, broken-down cars litter the streets.

Local unemployment stands at 6.4 percent according to Bereznoy's company, a far cry from figures provided by the mayor, who says 30 percent of the working age population is jobless.

The few residents to walk the town's deserted streets are still hopeful of what the project could bring.

"We hope that reality will be at the level of promises, that the candy will be as sweet as they said," stressed Anna Fateyeva, a 40-year-old childcare worker.

Shtokman will be "positive for Russia, positive for the people," said 82-year-old Modest Urpin, a former boat mechanic.

The deputy council chair, Yelena Kozhina, sums up what her fellow citizens feel.

"As we say in Russia, hope dies last."

© 2010 AFP

0 Comments To This Article