Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

The Prirazlomnaya offshore oil platform is unique for a number of reasons

The icy water seeping through the wetsuit takes your breath away. The photographer and I are sitting in a model of a helicopter, confidently going to the bottom. Water is already rising to the chest. As taught, I bite the mouthpiece, take a deep breath into the tube with bellows, pull out the pin. Water completely absorbs the space. The next moment everything turns upside down. Water is poured into the nose. I frantically try to find the lock on my belt, unfasten it, squeeze through the window opening, float up and finally take a breath … Alive.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

Something like this is the training for rescue from a sinking helicopter at the training center at the University of the Sea and River Fleet in St. Petersburg. You can't get to Prirazlomnaya without a certificate of its passage. As well as without a bunch of medical certificates. Well, just before leaving for the platform, you need to breathe into the breathalyzer. As a result, sitting in a stuffy helicopter in a mandatory wetsuit and flooding it with now cold sweat from the inside, in addition to anxiety, you feel relief: finally …

Naval order

From the coast of the Pechora Sea, where the settlement of Varandey serving the platform is located, to Prirazlomnaya is about 60 kilometers. Employees are delivered here exclusively by helicopter, cargo and food – by ships, once a week. In total, about 200 people work on the platform owned by Gazprom Neft (in 2016— Note by on a rotational basis: they work 12 hours a month every day, the next month they spend at home .

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

From the air, Prirazlomnaya resembles a stove from Russian folk tales, which suddenly grew its upper limbs in the form of cranes. Like that same fabulous furnace, the platform “came” here on its own, or rather, was towed from Murmansk, where the completion of the Prirazlomnaya was taking place. There is a platform on a concrete base – a caisson, where, in fact, the produced oil is stored in special tanks. The depth of the sea in this place is 20 meters.

All those who arrive at the sensitive facility are met by the security service. Once again (after Varandey) they look at the documents, and also check if the passenger has brought “prohibition”: alcohol, psychotropic drugs. Prirazlomnaya has the strictest dry law. After the screening – introductory briefing.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

The interior space of the facility is a multi-level labyrinth, including a residential complex and working compartments. Once here, you instantly cease to navigate in space. “Can you walk along the platform with your eyes closed?” – I ask the guard Sergei, who is escorting us to the “rooms”. “Yes, now,” he answers, “but the entire first month of work was spent studying these labyrinths. The only thing that helped was the evacuation plan.”

In the “rooms” on “Prirazlomnaya” two people live: a bunk bed, like in a reserved seat, a wardrobe, a table, two chairs, a TV, a bathroom with a shower. For smoking on the platform there is one strictly defined place with an electric cigarette lighter, like in a car. For entertainment – two cinema halls. But the most popular among shift workers is the billiard room, where there are tables for Russian and pool. To the accompaniment of the radio, the men are selflessly chasing balls. There is also a bookcase with books, mostly paperback detective stories, a library. There is also a computer room on the platform, which competes with the gym: there are no less fans of fighting at leisure in a sea battle than fans of the rocking chair and sauna. But there is no mobile communication at sea.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

You can call home only from a landline phone, which is on the table in the reception. The people are in line. Communication limited: five minutes. The Reception Room is the place where everyone inevitably meets, because most of the corridors converge here and the boss's office is located.

On the very first day, passing from one corridor to another, I hear a shout: “Young man, stop!” The voice promises at least two outfits out of turn. I turn around: a strict gray-haired man looks as if I went out onto the parade ground in a leaky underwear. “Let's not walk around like that!” – nods at my untied shoelace.

Observance of safety precautions at Prirazlomnaya is given almost maniacal attention. I feel if there was an uninhabited island nearby, I would definitely be dropped off. I hastily tie my shoelace. And five minutes later I run into my severe critic again. This time he looks at me from a photograph in a series of portraits hanging near the wardroom. Captain. Below the portrait is a quote from him, beginning with the words: “There is no alien at Prirazlomnaya…” I exhale with relief, but the corridors in the spirit of the scenery for the Ridley Scott film still give rise to vague anxiety. Looking around, I go to have lunch.


Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

Prirazlomnoye is the first and so far the only field on the Russian Arctic shelf where oil is being produced. The Prirazlomnaya platform is owned by Gazprom Neft. Unique ARCO oil is produced here. The platform is designed for maximum ice loads; even a direct hit of a ten-meter wave is not terrible for it. The drilling rig is capable of withstanding a wind load of 51 m/s (hurricane on the Beaufort scale), so drilling can be carried out in any weather.

Prirazlomnaya is installed directly on the seabed, and all wells are drilled inside it. The margin of safety of the foundation many times exceeds the actual loads. The walls of the caisson are made of a layer of clad steel 4 cm thick, the three-meter space between them is filled with heavy-duty concrete.

Oil storage tanks use a “wet” way of storing oil: they are always filled with either oil or water, which eliminates the risk of an explosive atmosphere. The line for pumping oil to the tanker is equipped with an emergency stop and shutdown system that works in a maximum of seven seconds.

At Prirazlomnaya, a “zero discharge” technology is used: used drilling fluid, cuttings and other wastes are either pumped into a special absorption well or transported to the mainland and disposed of. Water for technological needs is taken through special fish protection devices. They work on the principle of blinds, providing effective protection of the fish. Blind systems consist of rows of vertical slats. The fish visually perceives this “fence” as a solid impassable barrier and does not swim close, while the water passes freely between the blinds.

Read also

Daily bread

In the wardroom, a spacious hall with wide windows and stronger views than in Aivazovsky's pictures, the management staff take their meals. For the rest of the staff there is a canteen. Also with windows. The only difference is that in the dining room – self-service, and in the wardroom there is a waitress. The menu is the same for everyone, three meals a day, high-calorie and varied: several options for salads, soups and hot dishes with lots of meat, vegetables, fruits, dairy products.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

There are bowls with quartered onions on the tables during lunch and dinner. “From scurvy?” – I wink at Anna, the head of the catering department, a beautiful and slender girl, whom it’s a sin not to wink. “From infection,” the northern beauty strictly answers. “For the prevention of influenza and SARS among employees.”

To prevent boredom among cooks, a day of some national cuisine is held once a month. Our stay on the platform coincided with the Georgian day. Another gastronomic tradition: every Sunday they cook dumplings and hodgepodge. “Is it hard for a fragile girl to work among the peasants, not seeing her relatives for a long time?” – I ask Anna. -“Time flies here completely unnoticed, replies the beauty, -but for relatives on earth it stretches really endlessly '.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

We leave the wardroom together with the head of the Prirazlomnaya, Vladimir Shumakov. “Hold on to the handrail!” he reminds me of the rigorous safety rules on the platform. “It took me a long time to get used to it myself. But now I don’t even have enough handrails at home.” According to Vladimir, he worked for a long time in the company's office, which is called “with papers”, but got bored. And he asked to launch Prirazlomnaya.

His colleagues on the mainland then argued how long he would last there: a month, a quarter, a year. All the debaters lost: he has been on the platform for three years already (in 2016 —). “I think this is a special case for special people. How would you characterize those who work at Prirazlomnaya?” & nbsp; – I ask. Without hesitation, the boss replies: “For us, the more difficult, the more interesting! It's kind of a challenge. It would be possible to work five days a week, go to restaurants and theaters on weekends. Yearning! With us, each shipment is like a military operation. The life of the team depends on the coordinated actions of its members. It's great discipline. And those for whom the responsibility and stress are too great simply do not linger here.

Outpost of the North

The Prirazlomnaya platform is designed to ensure maximum safety of oil production in the Arctic.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

< h2>Unique people

In order to pump oil from the caisson to tankers, ships must stand in one place for 8-10 hours. In winter, powerful ice movement makes this task difficult. The rescue vessel that is on duty here is clearing the water area.

Sergey Rechkin, head of the labor protection service, proudly tells me: “Our complex of direct oil export devices (KUPON) has no analogues in the world. During the operation of the platform, 36 oil shipments were shipped, and not a single drop fell into the sea.”

The disposal of household waste is also clearly organized on the platform: it is taken out by ships to Murmansk. There are inscriptions everywhere on the decks: “Do not throw overboard.” I ask: “Can I toss a coin to return”? Sergei pauses, as if he is wondering if he wants to see me here again, and answers: “No!” I'm not offended, because even people doing outdoor work try not to drop the smallest screw or nut into the water.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

The boatswain is responsible for the operation of the coupons. His duties include control over all cargo turnover on the platform. The boatswain on duty Andrei fastens me and the photographer with seat belts in a special cradle: we have to transfer to the ship in order to take pictures of the platform from it. Meanwhile, I am thinking aloud: if there are no analogues of COUPONs in the world, therefore, the specialist working with this equipment is also unique.

“I am always on the edge of a knife: the slightest mistake of the boatswain is immediately visible to everyone,” Andrey smiles and orders the crane operator Zhanna to lift it on the radio. The cradle on a cable moves from the platform to the vessel, drawing an impressive arc in the air. We feel like we are on a ferris wheel.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

Zhanna is a star here: men speak of her breathlessly and with great respect. Zhanna has been at Prirazlomnaya since the very opening. She is 47 but looks 30. A unique woman. Having calmly listened to the compliment, he shrugs his shoulders: “I am from the north, the climate is conducive. Or maybe I'm minding my own business. And it's beautiful here.”

Zhanna's workplace offers a breathtaking view of the Arctic. “There are often northern lights. But what shocked me the most was this spring when thousands of fur seals swam by on the ice floes,” she smiles.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

In fact, in the neighborhood of Prirazlomnaya (60 km from the platform), in the area of ​​Dolgiy, Matveev, Golets, Bolshoi and Maly Zelentsy islands, there lives a large colony of Atlantic walruses. Since 2012, Gazprom Neft has been conducting annual studies of their life and is pleased with the results: after the start of production of the first Russian Arctic oil, no significant fluctuations in migration and distribution of marine mammals in the Pechora Sea were detected.

Read also

My Captain

The next morning I went to the captain. Conversation with him, to confess, postponed until the last. For the first five minutes of our conversation, Sergei Kostromskoy looked at me with distrust, but after I asked about sea signs, he thawed out. It turned out that they never say “great weather” on the platform, so as not to jinx it. The weather can be working and non-working. They also do not whistle, because, according to an old belief, the whistle causes the wind.

Black gold in the Far North: how oil is produced in the Arctic

It's good that at least I didn't whistle when I first encountered it, walking around with my shoelace untied. “Sergey Viktorovich, you don’t like strangers, do you?” I asked, remembering the quote under the portrait. The provocation failed.

“Strangers is the wrong word. I don't like temporary workers. Those who come here not at the call of the heart or character. Temporary workers go to earn money. And they have the right attitude towards work. Take you as an example, – the captain looked sternly and searchingly, I fidgeted on the spot. – Would you like to come back here? – “Well, they didn't let me throw a coin overboard yesterday… But I would like to return. In winter. To see the real harsh Arctic, to test yourself.”

The captain smiled: “Perhaps we could work together.”

Photo: German Morozov

Material published in Vokrug Sveta No. 11, November 2016, partially updated in February 2023

Kirill Sidorov

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *