Permafrost will limit natural gas, oil, and coal extraction

Preface. For many people, it’s comforting to know that about 25% of remaining oil and gas reserves (we have the know-how and economics to get it) and resources (beyond our technical and monetary capability) are in the arctic. They assume we’ll get this oil and gas when we need to, and delay oil shortages for a decade or more.

But  they haven’t considered the difficulties of trying to drill for oil and gas or mine coal in permafrost.  It buckles roads, airports, buildings, pipelines, and any other structures placed on top.

A Greenpeace report published in 2009 said thawing soil in Russia’s permafrost zones caused buildings, bridges and pipelines to deform and collapse, costing up to 1.3 billion euros (nearly $1.5 billion) a year in repairs in western Siberia.

Although there are ways to build roads that can withstand melting and freezing permafrost for a while, it is terribly expensive, and it is why we haven’t developed much oil or natural gas in Alaska besides Prudhoe Bay, as far north as you can get, with fewer permafrost issues.

The cost and energy of production in permafrost may mean that reserves are much less than estimated.  Especially if they are developed when oil production begins to decline, since the price and declining availability of oil will mean there’s less energy to build roads, towns, platforms for drilling rigs and oil pipelines. And for agriculture, transportation supply chains, and all the other myriad ways oil and gas keep us alive.

As it is, climate change continues to exceed past engineering standards, and every year Alaska and Canada spend millions of dollars trying to fix roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.

 Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Lee, J. 2019. Why Vladimir Putin Suddenly Believes in Global Warming. Russia was happy that global warming opened up Arctic oil, but the melting of permafrost poses a huge threat to its hydrocarbon heartlands. Bloomberg.

Until now, climate change has been seen as a “good thing” for Russia — at least in part. Warming waters have opened up the Northern Sea Route across the top of the country and made it practical, if not necessarily economic, to search for and exploit oil and gas resources beneath the Arctic seas. Who remembers the Shtokman gas project?

Yet the warming that is opening up the Arctic seas may be starting to have a less beneficial effect on the frozen landmass of northern Russia, the heartland of the country’s oil and gas development and production.

Areas of discontinuous permafrost could see a 50-75% drop in load bearing capacity by 2015-25 compared with 1965-75 [my comment: which can damage or destroy existing pipelines and other infrastructure].

“Permafrost is undergoing rapid change,” says the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate report adopted by the IPCC last week. The changes threaten the “structural stability and functional capacities” of oil industry infrastructure, the authors warn. The greatest risks occur in areas with high ground-ice content and frost-susceptible sediments. Russia’s Yamal Peninsula — home to two of Russia’s biggest new gas projects (Bovanenkovo and Yamal LNG) and the Novy Port oil development — fits that bill.

The problem is bigger than those three projects, though. Some “45% of the oil and natural gas production fields in the Russian Arctic are located in the highest hazard zone,” according to the IPCC report.

The top few meters of the permafrost, the so-called active layer, freezes and thaws as the seasons change, becoming unstable during warmer months. Developers account for this by making sure their foundations are deep enough to support their infrastructure: including roads, railways, houses, processing plants and pipelines. But climate change is causing that active layer to deepen, which means the ground loses its ability to support the things built upon it. The loss of bearing capacity is dramatic and it’s already well under way.

Foundations in the permafrost regions can no longer bear the loads they did as recently as the 1980s, according to a 2017 report by the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program. At Noviy Port the bearing capacity of foundations declined more than 20% between the 1980s and the first decade of this century.

On the Yamal Peninsula the ground’s bearing capacity is forecast to fall by 25%-50% on average in the 2015-2025 period, when compared with the years 1965-1975. Further south, in an area that includes Urengoy (the world’s second-largest natural gas field) and much of Russia’s older West Siberian gas production, the soil could lose 50-75% of its bearing capacity, according to AMAP.

While the impact of retreating permafrost on Russia’s new Arctic oil and gas developments can be mitigated, it adds to the price of the projects in an already high-cost environment. For older infrastructure the problems are worse. Gas production at the Bovanenkovo field on the Yamal Peninsula is expected to reach 140 billion cubic meters a year — more than Norway’s entire production — but it “has seen a recent increase in landslides related to thawing permafrost,” says the AMAP.

NRC. 2013. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating surprises. National Research Council, National Academies of Sciences press.

Permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, is ubiquitous around the Arctic and subArctic latitudes and the continental interiors of eastern Siberia and Canada, the Tibetan Plateau and alpine areas. As such, it is a substrate upon which numerous pipelines, buildings, roads and other infrastructure have (or could be) built, so long as these structures are properly designed to not thaw the underlying permafrost. For areas underlain by ice-rich permafrost, severe damage to permanent infrastructure can result from settlement of the ground surface as the permafrost thaws (Nelson

Over the past 40 years, significant losses (>20%) in ground load-bearing capacity have been computed for large Arctic population and industrial centers, with the largest decrease to date observed in the Russian city of Nadym where bearing capacity has fallen by more than 40%. Numerous structures have become unsafe in Siberian cities, where the percentage of dangerous buildings ranges from at least 10% to as high as 80% of building stock in Norilsk, Dikson, Amderma, Pevek, Dudina, Tiksi, Magadan, Chita, and Vorkuta.

The second way in which milder winters and/or deeper snowfall reduce human access to cold landscapes is through reduced viability of winter roads (also called ice roads, snow roads, seasonal roads, or temporary roads). Like permafrost, winter roads are negatively impacted by milder winters and/or deeper snowfall. However, the geographic range of their use is much larger, extending to seasonally frozen land and water surfaces well south of the permafrost limit. They are most important in Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Sweden, but also used to a lesser extent (mainly river and lake crossings) in Finland, Estonia, Norway, and the northern US states. These are seasonal features, used only in winter when the ground and/or water surfaces freeze sufficiently hard to support a given vehicular weight. They are critically important for trucking, construction, resource exploration, community resupply and other human activities in remote areas. Because the construction cost to build a winter road is <1% that of a permanent road, winter roads enable commercial activity in remote northern areas that would otherwise be uneconomic. Since the 1970s, winter road season lengths on the Alaskan North Slope have declined from more than 200 days/year to just over 100 days/year. Based on climate model projections, the world’s eight Arctic countries are all projected to lose significant land areas of up to 82% that currently possess climates suitable for winter road construction, with Canada (400,000km2/154,400 square miles) and Russia (618,000km2/238,600 square miles) experiencing the greatest losses in absolute land area terms

Although the prospect of ocean trans-Arctic routes materializing has attracted considerable media attention, it is important to point out that these routes would operate only in summer, and numerous other non-climatic factors remain to discourage trans-Arctic shipping including lack of services, infrastructure, and navigation control, poor charts, high insurance and escort costs, unknown competitive response of the Suez and Panama Canals, and other economic factors

Greg Quinn. August 2, 2016. Climate Change Is Hell on Alaska’s Formerly Frozen Highways A critical artery is threatened by thawing permafrost. Bloomberg.

For seven decades, the Alaska Highway has mesmerized adventure-seeking travelers. In one breathtaking stretch through the Yukon, glacier lakes and rivers snake through aspen forests and rugged mountains that climb into the clouds.

In recent years, though, a new sight has been drawing motorists’ attention, too, one they can spot just a few feet from their cars’ tires. Bumps and cracks have scarred huge swathes of the road, with some fissures so deep a grown man can jump in and walk through them. Scientists say they’re the crystal-clear manifestation that permafrost — slabs of ice and sediment just beneath the Earth’s surface in colder climes — is thawing as global temperatures keep rising.

In some parts of the 1,387-mile (2,232 kilometer) highway, the shifting is so pronounced, it has buckled parts of the asphalt. Caution flags warn drivers to slow down, while engineers are hard at work concocting seemingly improbable solutions: inserting plastic cooling tubes or insulation sheets, using lighter-colored asphalt or adding layers of soccer-ball sized rocks — fixes that are financially and logistically daunting.

“It’s the single biggest geotechnical problem we have,” said Jeff Currey, materials engineer for the northern region of Alaska’s Department of Transportation. “The Romans built roads 2,000 years ago that people are still using. On the other hand, we have built roads that within a year or two, without any maintenance, look like a roller coaster because they are built over thaw-unstable permafrost.

At the time of its construction, the highway was a show of American ingenuity and determination during World War II. In March 1942, just months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army hastily began to build a road linking Alaska, another exposed Pacific outpost, through Canada to the lower 48 states. Seven months later it was opened, providing a key supply line in case of invasion.

Today the highway serves as the main artery connecting the “Last Frontier” with Canada and the northwestern U.S., bringing tourists to Alaska cruise ships; food, supplies and medicine to remote towns; and equipment to oil fields and mines that are the region’s lifeblood.

Judy Gagnon, a 67-year-old trucker, has driven Canada’s roads since the early 1970s and said she’s seeing “more pieces fall apart.” Some damage is regular wear and tear, but “they are having trouble maintaining the road bed, because you have the permafrost underneath, and then you have it melting and it’s sinking.

The highway’s dark surface absorbs sunlight while the shoulders trap water and snow that act like a warm blanket. The heat breaks down the permafrost (soil, rock or sediment frozen for at least two consecutive years). Annual repair costs for one section that runs through the Yukon are $22,900 per kilometer, seven times the average, according to a territorial government report.

Thawing also threatens airport runways, buildings, animal-migration patterns and energy pipelines. It’s a problem outside North America, too. More than 600 scientists from nations including the U.S., Canada, Russia, China, Sweden and Argentina, attended an international permafrost conference in June.

The Alaska Highway challenged its original builders seven decades ago by swallowing up trucks. Any digging caused some terrain to thaw unless extra layers of logs and gravel were installed on top to ensure that “the frost was permanently locked in,” according to a 1944 U.S. War Department film.

Today’s engineers don’t assume permafrost will remain stable, even with modern insulation. Some roads being built now may become lost causes, requiring new bridges or detours, if global warming exceeds estimates in upgraded building standards.

“There are so few roads, and there is no redundancy, so every road is critical,” Currey said. “A detour is possible, but the detour might be 700 miles.

Forty-three percent of a 124-mile stretch between Alaska and Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, is “highly vulnerable to permafrost thaw,” according to a report co-authored by Fabrice Calmels, a researcher at Yukon College.

“It’s like taking five stories out of a 10-story building,” he said in an interview.

One solution is to keep heat away by building thicker embankments with larger gravel and rocks that help circulate cooler air, or by adding layers of insulation such as foam. More expensive options include installing pipes to vent out warmth. Some vents, called thermosyphons, are tubes, often filled with liquid carbon dioxide, that use a cycle of evaporation and condensation to take advantage of cooler air temperatures. These work if the difference above and below ground is at least 1 degree Celsius.

The key is creating infrastructure that’s “resilient” to future changes, said Paul Murchison, director of transportation engineering at the Yukon Department of Highways and Public Works.

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, and Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna stressed the urgency of the problem at a July 15 discussion on global warming. McKenna gave a grim update on Carney’s birthplace in the Northwest Territories, just east of the Yukon.

“Communities are unable to reach each other, it’s harder to get goods there,” she told attendees in Toronto. Thawing permafrost isn’t “just an inconvenience, folks; it’s a change in the way of life.”

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