National Geographic : 2016 Mar
Cold Rush 73 waiting to tow what appeared to be a round orange island out to sea. The Goliat platform, which belongs to the Italian oil company Eni and Statoil, has since dropped anchor at 71 de- grees north—53 miles northwest of Hammer- fest and 140 miles closer to the North Pole than Russia’s Prirazlomnaya platform. Twenty-five stories tall, Goliat can pump 100,000 barrels of oil a day and store a million barrels in its bright orange hull until tankers retrieve it. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, this part of the Barents Sea stays largely ice free, leading Eni officials to dub it the “workable Arctic.” But the platform still has to withstand hurricane-force winds and 50- foot waves. Its novel round hull bobs like a cork. Eni has contemplated a string of Goliats tapping even larger fields farther north in the Barents—but the price of oil has undermined that vision. Goliat cost $5.5 billion and was $1.3 billion over budget. Industry analysts estimate the company needs an oil price of $95 a barrel— roughly double the price in late 2015—to break even. Frederic Hauge, founder of the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group, hopes low oil prices will scuttle Eni’s grand plans and other offshore projects in the Arctic. There’s still no good way to clean up oil spilled in Arctic waters, he says. Most residents of Hammerfest, however, seemed glad to have the Goliat out there. The town was booming, with new, brightly colored apartment buildings, schools, and a cultural center. Fishermen worry more about an inva- sion of cod-egg-eating crabs than about an oil spill from the Goliat, says Jacob West, leader of the fishermen’s union. Eni has trained 30 local captains to skim oil if necessary. “This is our garden,” West says. “ We know the area and the weather, so fishermen are the best to do the job.” The day I left, he and his colleagues were scheduled to conduct a large oil-spill drill. It was canceled because of bad weather. Canada: A Gold Mine for Nunavut The Meadowbank gold mine, northwest of Hud- son Bay in the sprawling territory of Nunavut, is one of the coldest mines on Earth. Shortly after it opened in 2010, workers were loading a house-size dump truck with ore when the massive frame cracked. Apparently even steel beams as big as tree trunks get brittle when temperatures drop below minus 40°F. It was nearly that cold when I arrived last March in a van full of mine workers from Baker Lake, the nearest settlement. In the middle of the two-and-a -half-hour drive, the van pulled over to let its passengers have a bathroom break and a smoke. A treeless, boulder-strewn field of snow stretched to the horizon. The slight breeze stung like invisible sleet. Even a nonsmoker could see the appeal of a small fire in front of one’s face. But deep breaths of any kind, or ex- posing sensitive bits of one’s anatomy, seemed like a bad idea. The week before I arrived, a bliz- zard had cut off the mine for three days. Arctic warming hasn’t helped much at Meadowbank. The cold isn’t the only challenge. One night in 2011 a hungry wolverine burrowed beneath the camp kitchen to get at the grease. The ensuing electrical fire burned down the cafeteria, slowed mining significantly for weeks, and caused U.S. $18 million in damages. But the utter lack of infrastructure and energy was the biggest hur- dle, says Sean Boyd, CEO of Agnico Eagle, the Toronto-based mine owner. Agnico Eagle had to build an airstrip capable of landing a Boeing 737 at Meadowbank and a 65-mile, all-weather road to the mine. When something big breaks, such as a hundred-ton truck, Agnico Eagle has to charter a C-130 Hercules to fly in massive parts or wait for Hudson Bay to thaw in summer. “ We underestimated the work and the cost of the logistics involved in building something in the middle of nowhere,” Boyd says. “It ended up being double our initial estimate. Energy is a huge component of the cost.” The mine, he explains, burns 9 to 12 million gallons of diesel a year in six 6,000-horsepower generators. Tanker trucks deliver the fuel daily from Baker Lake, where it arrives by barge each summer through Hudson Bay. The mine itself occupies nearly six square miles. During the brief Nunavut summer its three open pits become inverted islands, below beams as big as tree trunks get brittle at minus 40°F.