Russia's hunger for gas deepens social divide

THE GUARDIAN , ZAPOLYARNOYE GAS FIELD, RUSSIA

Sat, Jul 15, 2006 - Page 6

Far from civilization in the endless tundra of the far north, an army of workers is toiling to fuel President Vladimir Putin's vision of a new Russia. In summer a swarm of mosquitoes and gnats rises from the festering swamps, crawling down collars and up trouser legs. In winter the temperature plummets to minus 60?C.

"It gets to you, however tough you are," said Igor Sbornov, 34, senior engineer at the UKPG-1S gas processing plant north of Novy Urengoy, beyond the Arctic Circle. "Even a stone shatters if you move it from fire to ice."

The rigors of working in this remote wilderness 2,900km northeast of Moscow are amply rewarded by the world's biggest natural gas supplier, Gazprom. Putin's rush to build a mighty state on the back of Europe's growing energy hunger -- the central theme of this weekend's G8 summit -- has created an industrial elite of gazoviki -- gas workers -- which shows up the gaping divide between Russia's haves and have-nots.

About 90 percent of Russian gas is found here in the Yamal-Nenets autonomous region. Highly paid and socially protected, the gazoviki who extract and refine it live like gods compared with most provincial Russians.

By contrast, just kilometers from the spotless corridors of UKPG-1S, a group of Nenets reindeer herders pushes north through the tundra in search of fresh pastures, their ancestral land increasingly eroded by pipelines, railways and sprawling gas plants.

"The oil and gas sectors bring most money into the budget and their lobbies are very strong," said Andrei Salinder, a Nenets intellectual campaigning for the herders' rights in Salekhard. "Who needs a few thousand native people? Our cry for help is a cry in the desert."

Gazprom's nannied workforce, however, is swept in a comforting Kremlin embrace. A sprawling, paternalistic state-owned company, Gazprom ensures cradle-to-grave care. It pays premiums for loyal service and high pensions, and lays on subsidized holidays for its 30,000 workers.

At UKPG-1S on the huge Zapolyarnoye gas field, engineers move between workshops along heated overhead walkways, specially designed so they can stay out of the winter cold.

"The weather may be extreme but everything else here is European standard," said Sbornov. At the purpose-built employees' settlement nearby he is treated at a free medical center, sees shows in a spacious concert hall and works out at a sports center.

Increasing extraction on the Yamal and Tazovsky peninsulas is one of Gazprom's biggest strategic targets, said Oleg Andreyev, general director of daughter company Yamburggazdobycha. That reassures the thousands of gas workers in the region who know they will be the last to go in the event of rumored job cuts at Gazprom.

Yet news of expansion spells doom for the Nenets people.

Yamal-Nenets is home to 6,000 of the last truly nomadic reindeer herders on the planet. Every year they migrate between the fringe of the forests known as taiga to their grazing lands on Russia's northern fringe, by the Arctic Ocean.

Their way of life is now in jeopardy as Gazprom plans rapid expansion here in the far north.