Gasmen's salaries help melt Arctic chill

Leaving the 'Big Land' for the frozen Arctic, Russia's gasmen stake out a piece of the country's gas fortune.

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Rinat Kalimullin shrugs when you ask him about the climate. Outside it's 13 degrees below zero F. and the Arctic twilight is already descending, even though it's just after lunch. But the darkness and nine months of winter don't seem to bother the gas engineer. "You should come here in the summer," he says. "Then it doesn't get dark at all. A lot of us find that even worse."

At face value, there is little for which to envy the citizens of Novy Urengoi, the main town in Russia's Yamal-Nenets region. These people inhabit one of the least hospitable corners of the globe. They're stuck on the edge of the Arctic Circle, hundreds of miles from civilization, blasted by subzero temperatures for most of the year, and submerged in darkness for all but a couple of lunchtime hours through the deep midwinter.

But viewed through the prism of the global energy game, these Siberians have something to envy after all. Buoyed by a gluttonous global thirst for hydrocarbons and with a constricted supply sending energy prices sky high, the town that has gas to sell is sitting pretty. And Novy Urengoi has a lot of gas to sell.

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This is the gas capital of Russia, a town that sits on the world's second-largest gas field in a country whose energy wealth is its trump card. Moscow currently views gas and oil as it used to view nuclear weapons: As a potent instrument of projecting international power. It supplies its neighbors with most of their energy requirements, and provides western Europe with a third of its gas needs as well.

But countries that fall afoul of the Kremlin run the risk of falling short of gas, as Ukraine and Georgia will testify. But while menacing clients, Russia looks after its gazoviki, or gas men. Indeed, they may be among the most privileged manual workers in the country.

Take Mr. Kalimullin. His take-home pay, equivalent to around $2,000 a month, is six times the national average. An engineer, he works 11-hour shifts for a month at the Pestzovaya-16 gas treatment plant 50 miles north of Novy Urengoi, then gets a month off, when he normally flies south to the Big Land, as they call the rest of Russia.

And while he's on-site, he eats, sleeps, and relaxes in a dormitory, complete with sports hall, billiards room, table-tennis, gym, and the inevitable Russian banya, or sauna. Outside, it's bitingly cold, but heating isn't a problem. Rooms are, in fact, heated so prodigiously that windows are left wide open to the Arctic elements beyond.

"Of course, living conditions are harsh, but indoors as you see it's not so bad. We try to make it as comfortable for our people as possible," says the plant's boss, Ilshat Gilemkhanov, who also heads south, to Ufa, when he's not on the job.

The relative luxury is Russia's way of enticing workers to the sparse, frigid northern expanses where settlements are few but mineral wealth enormous. Yamal-Nenets, which is slightly larger than Texas but home to barely 500,000 people, produces around one-fifth of the world's gas output. The Urengoi field churns out enough of the stuff to meet the needs of the whole of Germany.

For the workers, the appeal is not just in the perks, but in working for Russia's preeminent company. Gazprom, a holdover from the Soviet energy ministry, is a colossus, a giant that employs 400,000 people and owns one-sixth of the world's gas reserves. If it charged market prices to domestic customers instead of practically giving its gas away at below-cost, it would, by some estimations, be the largest company in the world. If Gazprom were a country – and sometimes it is referred to as a "state within a state" – it would rank 60th in the world in terms of income.

Thirty years ago, there was no town here, nothing except a few reindeer herdsmen. It would have stayed that way as well, but for the pioneering exploits of Soviet engineers who braved Arctic December temperatures to bulldoze their way to the promised land. That was in 1973. By 1978 the gas was on.

Nowadays, it's a small city of 100,000, with hotels, an ice hockey stadium, cinemas, theaters, indoor sports centers, and lots and lots of Soviet-style apartment blocks blanched by the elements.

But what happens to Novy Urengoi when the gas runs out?

Already, Nikolai Dubina, one of those early pioneers, admits that the main gas field's heyday is behind it, and now it produces half of what it did in the 1980s. Now, Gazprom is starting to turn its attention to elsewhere in Russia. But for the citizens of Novy Urengoi, 70 percent of whom depend on the gas giant, a future without gas is unthinkable; for the citizens of western Europe, who are on the receiving end of the pipeline, it's a similarly worrying prospect.

But that may be something for future generations to worry about. The Urengoi gas field may be 70 percent depleted. But that last 30 percent still holds several trillion cubic meters of the stuff. And other outlying sites may yet come through, keeping Novy Urengoi, the frontier town of the north, going for a few more decades.

"We have enough gas for our daughters and granddaughters," promises Mr. Dubina, "so stop worrying folks."

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