The Arctic killers

The scramble for the Arctic's oil and gas has begun. Marek Kohn reports exclusively from Svalbard on

The first thing you see of Barentsburg is a frayed plume of black smoke, and this also turns out to be one of its few signs of life. Although the town ranks as the second largest settlement in the Svalbard archipelago, far to the north of Norway and just to the south of the Arctic ice, it can muster only about 900 inhabitants. Many are underground, mining the coal they burn to keep the place going. This is an offshore Russian colony, hanging on in an undead Soviet town as the coal reserves run out.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the population is swelled by about 10 per cent because of a party of British teenagers who have won a trip to Svalbard in Ice Edge, a competition for environmental projects organised by Edge, the educational foundation. They have come to meet scientists from different nations, see polar bears and stand on the rim of the polar ice, but today they are being reminded that underneath the northern quest for scientific knowledge lies the search for fossil fuel.

A bust of Lenin glares at them from a distance, as the guide points out "the only forest on Svalbard" - a fading mural of Russian birches, to help the miners feel at home. Those men did not really come all this way to dig coal, but to fly the flag. Under the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920, Norway has sovereignty over the archipelago, but the other signatories have rights of access. During the Soviet period, the state's principal strategic interest in the region was military; today it is the fields of gas and oil through which Russia intends to assert its global influence. Nearly a quarter of Russia's reserves lie off its northern coasts, and it hopes to gain ten billion tonnes more by demonstrating that its continental shelf is 1.2 million square kilometres bigger than is accepted at present. That is why, a few days ago, a Russian vessel, visiting the North Pole as part of International Polar Year, sent down mini-submarines to plant a titanium Russian flag on the ocean floor. This old-fashioned gesture made headlines around the world.

Poisoned winds

Industry is already inescapable up here. At Ny-Ålesund, a cluster of international scientific stations - from Chinese to Dutch, the latter represented by a man in yellow clogs who studies geese - the school students meet Geir Gabriel sen, an ecotoxicologist. He tells them how the Arctic is becoming a "sink" for pollutants from the south, which build up in the fatty tissues of Arctic seabirds, polar bears and other predators. These days, the winds from the south are blowing for longer, increasing the exposure of Arctic wildlife to toxins from Europe and elsewhere.

Wildlife may also be exposed increasingly to industrial chemicals from closer at hand. Arctic technologists at Svalbard's University Centre are studying the properties of ice to assess the prospects for pipelines and drilling rigs. Offshore gas and oil extraction in the Arctic will push the limits of technology in an environment that is both extreme and fragile.

The current centre of attention in the Arctic energy landscape is the Shtokman field, off north-west Russia in the Barents Sea. Russia's energy giant Gazprom has selected Total, the French oil concern, as a partner in exploiting the reserves, which it plans to start piping in 2013. Shtokman is big, but its 3.7 trillion cubic metres of gas are only a small part of Russia's immense hydrocarbon deposits, which amount to 45 per cent of the world's known gas reserves and a fifth of the world's oil. Its Arctic regions also contain deposits of precious and base metals.

Looking at a map of the Arctic with the North Pole at the centre, one sees that this is Russia's natural hemisphere. Looking at the distribution of its Arctic mineral resources, one can imagine a Russian drive to intensify the industrialisation of this frontier as global warming thaws it. Similar opportunities may open up all around the hemisphere. At the first Arctic Frontiers conference, in Norway in January, Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency, warned against "another Klondike" in the Arctic.

Indeed, all across the top of the world, the encroachment of industry into the permafrost is well under way. On the Russian Sakhalin peninsula, north of Japan, Shell is pursuing oil and gas extraction in the habitat of the world's last hundred or so Pacific grey whales. In partnership with Gazprom, Mitsubishi and Matsui, it is constructing two further oil platforms, two 800km pipelines and an LPG processing plant. Environmentalists claim the development has destroyed fishing areas and, with the influx of male workers, brought a wave of prostitution and HIV.

The Yamal peninsula in north-western Siberia holds Russia's largest natural gas reserves. Gazprom hopes to start extracting from the Bovanenkovskoye deposit by 2011-2012. "At Yamal, we are seeing serious environmental effects, with roads being driven through the reducing permafrost," says Rasmus Hansson of WWF Norway. "There are huge oil leaks as pipelines start to sink into the melting frost. The ecological consequences are massive."

The going is slow for Russia's hydrocarbon industry in the high north, and the industry is also coming under scrutiny in North America, which consumes more than 25 per cent of the world's oil. Last year, BP had to close the Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield, 250 miles inside the Arctic circle and the largest reserve of oil in the US, after a spill caused by corroded pipelines. For environmentalists, the silver lining is that it makes drilling in the neighbouring Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - a long-held ambition of congressional Republicans - politically impossible for now.

Frederic Hauge, president of the Oslo-based environmental organisation Bellona, sees such industrial difficulties as a valuable respite. "The Arctic is struggling with nuclear contamination, toxins, pollution and climate change," he says. "Oil and gas exploration puts a huge amount of pressure on an extremely stressed ecosystem. The Arctic is like a canary in a coal mine: we see the effects of global warming there earlier than anywhere else. It's very scary. Oil and gas companies face a moral responsibility to act: we need to combat climate change with all the weapons we have. Norway faces a global responsibility to the world as guardian of this precious ecosystem: we simply can't look at this in terms of regional and personal gain. My hope is that oil and gas companies can be held off a little longer . . . Keeping oil and gas out of the Arctic is the single most important thing we can do."

Political stresses

When Americans looked at northern polar maps in the 1950s, they saw the Soviet Union reaching round the globe to encircle them. Today, the global threat arises wherever people burn carbon, but it would be unwise to overlook the potential political stresses in the Arctic. Across the Russian half of the hemisphere, a political-industrial complex appears to be taking shape in which state and commercial interests are in tegrated. Norway will also keep StatoilHydro, its major energy player, under state control. The Arctic states have a strong sense of their national interests in the region, and may not always live together as harmoniously as the international scientists at Ny-Ålesund do, eating together in the mess hall.

Not all the effects of climate change in the Arctic are yet clear. There may be more snow in future, for instance, and that might protect the remaining ice by reflecting the sun's light away. As the glaciers melt, pouring fresh water into the sea, they may slow the great ocean circulation that bathes Europe in warm water from the south, offsetting the greenhouse effect. The effects on sea level are another matter again. Recently the Nasa climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues warned of an "imminent peril" that melting in the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets might run beyond human control, leading to "devastating" sea level rises of several metres per century.

What is clear, however, is that the Arctic sea ice is shrinking, at its summer minimum, by about 8 per cent per decade: about 500,000 square miles have gone since the late 1970s. Svalbard's university is on the shore of Isfjorden ("ice fjord"), but for the past two winters it has been free of ice, and as its annual report notes, the university's supplies have been delivered by sea. The average temperature last year was 5° higher than the average over the past 50 years. As the research results come in from the International Polar Year, the world's polar scientists will map the changes that have occurred since the results from its predecessor, the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, in unprecedented detail. According to Hansson, the environmental hazards facing the Arctic can still be countered. "A growing num ber of governments are admitting a problem," he says. "Although the problem is increasingly serious, there is increased reason for optimism."

The fjord and the polluted wildlife show how everything is amplified here. Animals, needing protection against the cold, have more fatty tissue, in which toxins accumulate. Climate modelling indicates that if the world as a whole gets 2°C warmer, the average temperature in the Arctic will rise by over 6°C. As the scientific briefing for the International Polar Year points out, changes happen earlier at the poles. The Arctic may be a "sentinel" for the planet, where scientists can ob serve tomorrow's changes today.

As the ice recedes, the forests will march north. There may never be real birches at Barentsburg, but trees will replace tundra across much of northern Canada and Arctic Russia. Much of the remaining tundra will become "polar desert". According to a WWF speaker at the Arctic Frontiers conference, some 60 per cent of the tundra will be lost one way or the other, and the reindeer herds with it. That will put paid to what remains of the traditional way of life for those of the Arctic's four million inhabitants who still herd the reindeer. It will also destabilise the foundations of the modern way of Arctic life, with buildings collapsing and roads fragmenting as the permafrost melts.

Tourist footprints

The tourists are heading north, as well as the engineers and the forests. At Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost settlement in the world, the Ice Edge students have to wait for two large cruise ships to move away before they can land. Each time these ships visit, the scientists' environ mental measurements are spoiled by a tourist spike. We all arrive with green intentions, but can't help leaving our footprints.

The students have ideas for reducing their carbon footprint, from domestic energy monitors to blinds fitted with solar panels. Most are green, but one is yellow. Nathan Allen, Chris Balding and Jess Fok of Eltham College in south London suggest that infernal element, sulphur, as an alternative to coal. They've got it all worked out - immense reserves, high efficiency, huge demand for the acid by-product and, in a nice biotech flourish, bacteria from Icelandic volcanoes to digest the sulphur back out of the leftover acid.

At Barentsburg, this bold flight of chemical imagination strikes a chord - with Philip Pullman's reimagined Svalbard in Northern Lights, in which Tartar slaves work the "fire-mines" for the ruling polar bears, who in battle launch flaming sulphur from their "fire-hurlers". The mine itself stands as a reminder of some unpleasant truths about burning carbon.

During their trip, the students see one polar bear, stalking the shore in the all-night sun. In the real Arctic, the prospects for its kind are about as gloomy as Barentsburg's. As the ice goes, so will the seals, which need ice floes on which to pup; and as the seals go, so will the bears that feed on them. And as the ice goes, the more oil and gas will be extracted from under the sea, to make its contribution to global warming, which will melt more ice, and so on. Not only will it become easier to drill for oil and gas, but it will also become easier to transport extracted fuels and minerals across the Arctic by sea. The Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific could become a commercially viable route, as could a Northeast Passage north of Russia. If warming continues, as some forecasters fear, ships could eventually sail straight over a watery North Pole, with no icebreakers required.

Additional research by Matthew Holehouse

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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