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Heating the oil

Date of publication: 8 May 2017 Printable version

A KP correspondent has just visited the recently launched oil trunk pipeline Zapolyarye – Purpe.

A helicopter is flying over a flatland of the Urengoy permafrost. White reticence casts a spell. All of a sudden it is cut by a pipe line. This is Zapolyarye – Purpe, the world’s northernmost oil trunk pipeline launched by President Vladimir Putin this January. We are inspecting the first oil pump station.

Night-time. Permafrost. “Spacecrafts”…

On a night flight, you are exposed to an unreal landscape – the launch site of aliens. The lights and round disks of tanks are like landing pads.

PS-1, the ground zero of the oil pipeline, is built in the midst of permafrost, 200 km north of the Arctic Circle.

“You can’t imagine how many technological developments we had to implement in the course of construction,” says Deputy Director General of Transneft Siberia Mikhail Sayapin who was in charge of construction works in the Urengoy desert. “I did not think that we could be surprised at anything, but we were treated… to featureless permafrost… and our key challenge was warming the oil…”

Mikhail Sayapin has been here since the very first day. He has walked, ridden, flown past each mile of the pipe. Dwelling on various construction stages and oil pipeline cascades, Mr Sayapin recalls survival technologies in the midst of snow, marshlands, and permafrost.

“The first thing we dragged here was a construction town; the first thing we built was a soccer field, and the first thing flooded in spring was this very soccer field near the town of builders,” Sayapin chuckles. At one of the critical moments, Sayapin even bet a farm for Vice President of Transneft that he would finish laying the last section of the pipe by 31 March. That seemed unrealistic, Moscow was sceptical. But if they missed that deadline, the works would stall by another year. “Well, let's drink to the wager won,” smiles Mikhail confirming that the pipe was launched on time.

At minus 36 Centigrade, the Urengoy crude congeals like tallow and stops flowing down the pipe, so the main task was heating the crude. The builders erected eight oil heating stations along the 500-km length of Zapolyarye – Purpe oil pipeline. Nothing of the kind happened before, so the builders had to test everything anew in each particular case.

How to pump without electricity?

When the project had entered an active construction stage, there came the year 2014: sanctions, crisis with the EU. The Russian government’s decision to lead electric grids to the Arctic region sank into oblivion, or rather into the white stillness...

“The construction was so rapid that our partners have not yet pulled their ETL to the station, despite the already operating pipeline and the service road,” says Sayapin. “And we could not renounce our plan and commitments. So we decided to build a 45-MW substation with 6 Finnish generators as well as homemade outfit and software..."

Today all of the pumps, lighting, and life-support equipment are powered by the generators that are adapted to the use of crude oil.

Here is the main line pump, the key consumer of electric power. Its capacity is 5,500 kW, voltage – 10 kV, rotary speed – 3,000 rpm.

Each PS generates 40–50 MW of electric power from crude, enough to heat a small city.

Permafrost as the pivot

PS-1 is the northernmost station in Russia. Eight giant tanks can store 20,000 m3 each, and there are also smaller ones storing 5 m3 each.

We set up tents over each future crude tank (as high as a 5-storey house), with small cement works working in each for concreting the piles and foundation.

Permafrost is venerated and preserved here, using the technologies of its freezing over the foundation piles lest the latter “melt” in summer.

Huge 20,000-m3 tanks hang in the air on piles, with little tubes sticking out of the ground near them. These are heat stabilizers with antifreeze pumped into them. The antifreeze literally freezes the ground around each pile to minus 18 degrees C. These frozen “pears” around each pile merge underground into one large iceberg which will remain here till the end of the glacial era.

“Since the very beginning we learned to address new issues. Thus we travelled to Alaska to study piping supports and then remade them several times until the stability in land adjustment movement was achieved, given that the drop of temperatures reaches 100 degrees here – from minus 60 in winter to plus 40 in summer! In summer the ground is so unstable that the pipe truck cabin can be covered with water and soil in its entirety...”

“Even painting supports is a problem, since we either have severe frosts or they are flooded. When can we paint them? There is no interim season here: frost and snow are immediately replaced by water and intense heat. We developed a paint which does not freeze even at minus 15 and we paint the supports at the eve of the warm season..."

 The development team of Transneft received the science and technology award from the Russian government for “implementing a new generation of building technologies and structures... in challenging geoclimatic conditions”.

15 seconds for evacuation

It takes several hours to go round the entire station. Sayapin shows us the main units. Each tank has a tall fence of lighting-rods. A strike of lightening is the main threat that may cause a fire. Therefore, unique firefighting technologies are used here.

Oilfield equipment operates in shops with many windows. Entire walls are made of glass that in case of explosion the shock wave would smash only windows, with the framework and main structures remaining intact.

“At the sound of alarm, automatic equipment is activated and carbonic acid must cover the entire surface of the tank during 15 seconds”. Sayapin leads me to one of the tanks and suggests that I should climb the iron stairs up to the roof. Spread out in the midst of the snow desert is a camp of aliens who had flown here on disk-shaped tanks to refuel.

“Have you risen upstairs? Now the 'fire!' command: 15 seconds later carbonic acid will be fed here and there will be no oxygen to breathe. 15 seconds for evacuation!”  I perplexedly look about: where shall I leap? “Do not be afraid, we won’t leave you alone, it’s a drill,” smiles Sayapin...

...You can see from the tank roof how oilers make themselves comfortable.

– Rosneft, Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, Arcticgas...

PS-1 pumps all of this crude, heats it, compounds, and sends down the pipe to recipients.

“Since the beginning of the year, we’ve pumped 1 million tonnes. Overall, at the first stage, we plan pumping 5 million tonnes and gradually increase this amount to 25 million and eventually to 45 million, after Yuzhno-Russkoye and Messoyakhskoye fields unlock their potential”, tells me Aleksandr Sergeevich. Overall, there are 2 billion tonnes of explored Urengoy crude reserves. But it’s not enough to extract it: crude must be delivered to consumers; hence the oil pipeline is indispensable...

Life and devil

With no housing and roads over hundreds of miles around PS-1, 400 km north of Urengoy, 128 staff work in 28-day rotation shifts, getting high wages, the northern coefficient standing at 1.8.

They live like on board the submarine, but with greater comfort... non-stop inspections and passages from one compartment to another. The SPU operator goes round the entire territory of 6 km twice. “This is why all our operators are so slim”, shift foreman Sergey rejoices.

Each residential block houses a billiards parlour, a gym, and a library, but there’s nowhere to go from the “submarine”.... a snow desert, frost, and strong winds in winter, everything flooded in summer – marshlands, lakes, rivers, streams; hence rotation shifts.

Anything may happen at stations, recalls Sayapin.

“On one occasion, when I worked as a shift foreman, I had a phone call from Ninka on duty at the substation, late at night. “Mikhal Ivanych, we have a devil here”, she yells. “Please come to our rescue for God’s sake...”

“Are you lit to the gills there?” I yell back...

“No, not a drop, but we have real devil here, Mikhal Ivanych, dear, come and save us, we closed it in a locker room...”

I had to walk 5 km to that station at 3 a.m. and was angry like a demon myself. But then I saw Ninka on the table and her relief worker standing near howling... The locker room is shut tight with a locking bar and barricaded. I carefully open a hole and see... a real black devil with scary eyes, claws, tail, his fangs gnashing, black wings behind his back... I was frightened myself...

Later it turned out that they received new equipment from Hungary in boxes, with a flying fox making a nest in one of them and traveling with those boxes to the Arctic. And on a polar night that animal looked like a real devil...

“By the way, how about the booze at your facilities?”  I ask.

“We have prohibition here: we do not even let trucks with alcoholic beverages to our roads...”

A deathtrap?

Every Soviet schoolchild knew about the gas pipeline Urengoy – Pomary – Uzhgorod, since they kept broadcasting about that construction project of the century from every “iron”.

Yet oilers came here only in the late 2000s. Why? Because there had been no infrastructure until at the end of last year Transneft put into operation a unique facility without much fanfare: the oil trunk pipeline Zapolyarye – Purpe. “There are only two stations of this technological level in Russia. When I brought a Gazprom delegation here, they threw up their hands: “Even we have nothing like that!” Sayapin recalls.

“We should also bring here the CPRF leaders who claim that the entire infrastructure was created under the Communist rule. The times and quality will give the edge to new Russia. And people are paid wages instead of being given diplomas and food stamps,” prompts Dmitry, one of the station’s employees.

“We’ve come here to earn money, not to smell fir-trees,” backs his mate Vladimir.

Translated from Nenets, “Urengoy” means a deathtrap. This was how Urengoy was dubbed by GULAG builders who were laying the railway line Salekhard – Igarka (the construction was stopped after Stalin’s death). Urengoy was indeed a deathtrap for convicts...

(I suddenly remembered my friend Boris, a veteran Arctic geologist: every time he drank too much he started yelling: “When ours come to power, we’ll exile you, journalists, to finish the railroad Labytnanga – Igarka...” When sober, he was a kind person, though...).

Another version links this name to the gas released from the ground and poisoning local animals. Actually, natural gas is the first reason for the development of these territories. New Urengoy was formed, when they began developing new gas fields here. Quite accidentally, this site was chosen for a future city.

“When they were flying to the site, the minister wanted to relieve himself. The helicopter landed. After easing his nature, the minister looked around. Tundra was iridescent, the Arctic sunlight coddling his face. And there was no wind. The public servant’s bliss instantly determined the fate of Russia’s future gas capital. “Isn’t it a good place for a future city?” They first built a core of the city and then realized that the railway was far away... apparently they forgot to consult the map; and so they decided to build an airport...” Today this is Russia’s gas capital and the longest city in the country. Given that remote settlements have been urbanized, the extension of New Urengoy reaches 170 km.

In the subarctic climate, winter lasts 7 months. When we flew here in mid-April, the air warmed up to minus 15 Centigrade and oilers prayed that spring would come 2–3 weeks later that they might have enough time to withdraw the construction city.

We are flying over the boundless Tundra again. Sayapin does not turn his squinted glance away from the scuttle. The pipe hangs on supports like a string, seldom diving underground, crossing rivers and reindeer passes, directing the flow of hydrocarbons westward or eastward...

“How can you see anything there?” I wonder.

“You can,” Sayapin is smiling into his moustache. “If the pipe holder is impaired the pipe starts quaking...”

In front of the creeks and rivers, the pipe dives underground. It can be laid only in winter. The longest underground crossing over the river Taz reaches 25 km.

There are many Arctic foxes. “They are like rats at the station,” chuckles the shift foreman Sergey. Wolves also visited the station. “A short time ago, a she-bear brought her cubs there and terrorized our employees for a week or so, until we called hunters and drove them away...”. And, surely, a lot of reindeer crossing the pipeline via special deer passes.

The oil trunk pipeline Zapolyarye – Purpe we are observing from our helicopter is now an ultramodern plant receiving, conditioning, and transporting “gold oil” in the amount of 25 million tonnes a year. These are also 3 oil pump stations (each covering 50 hectares), 8 oil heating stations, a tank farm having the capacity in excess of 500,000 m3 of crude, and more than 500 km (300 miles) of pipelines.

The whole of it was built on permafrost at low temperatures and is capable of meeting its own needs for heating and energy. Over 7,000 people were toiling at the northern construction site during peak periods.


When we were flying away, Mikhail told me a funny story. “I was then a young foreman and we were flying around the facility on a helicopter. We seemed to have an experienced pilot, but then suddenly he nosedived and literally fell on the tundra without saying a word. He flopped and did not even stop the engine, but ran away into the fog with his eyes wide open. I was perplexed: what’s going on? What if the engine explodes? I jumped down, running farther away from the copter. But then the pilot suddenly appears from the fog, fastening the belt on his pants, quiet. “Are you insane?” I yelled. And he said, “I had some steamed milk from the farm girls; so, today it’s the third time I drop like this...” The morale of this story, Sayapin resumed, is that the bottom line in our business is not to shit the pants! Then we may not fear any sanctions...

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