Protest actions demanding immediate installation of gas services took place in the Trans-Baikal territory and the Republic of Buryatia. Since the 2000s, attempts to lay gas pipelines to these regions have been made. However, so far boiler-houses have been running on coal and firewood, and the city has been suffocating from smog all winter.
Several dozens of people held a rally in the city of Chita, the administrative center of the Trans-Baikal territory. They demanded an immediate installation of gas services. Activists claim that a similar protest action took place in Ulan-Ude, the capital of neighboring Buryatia region. Residents of these regions signed an appeal to the federal authorities and the management of Gazprom. In addition to the demands for gas supplies infrastructure development, they asked for a reduction of fees for the electricity supplied for heating.
According to the protesters, in winter, Chita is covered with a dense layer of smog produced by boiler-houses. Moreover, the content of carcinogens in the air exceeds the norm by 2-3 times. The Trans-Baikal territory is one of the ten areas with the most contaminated air.
“Chita is located in the lowlands,” Aleksey Fedorov, a member of the Russian Association of Political Consultants (RAPC) and a native of the Trans-Baikal territory, told wek.ru. “Therefore, the winds don't blow the smog out of there. Not only the power-and-heating plants burn coal and fume smoke, but also both private households and local companies use it, too. In addition, the business sector builds mini-boiler houses. All these fumes accumulate in Chita and settle there.”
Roman Berg, a deputy of the legislative assembly of the Trans-Baikal territory, delivered a speech at the rally. He claimed that he had been approached by voters with a proposal to write an official letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping to lay a gas pipe in the Trans-Baikal territory.
As previously reported, Berg has already repeatedly appealed to the Russian president and government for installing gas services in Chita as a minimum, the center of the territory. In his address Berg said that it is precisely because of the absence of pipeline gas supplies in the area that Trans-Baikal is unable to implement the Ecologiya (Ecology) national project and reduce air pollution by 22%. More affordable electricity tariffs might also improve the environmental situation, as many owners of private houses would like to install electric boilers for heating but this is too expensive for them.
For the first time, the topic of gas supplies infrastructure development in the Trans-Baikal territory got on the agenda in the early 2000s. At that time, an agreement on provision of gas supplies in the Trans-Baikal territory was signed between the local authorities and Gazprom. However, the gas industry major Gazprom refused to provide funding for this project and the regional budget had no money for it.
In 2013, Konstantin Ilkovsky was appointed Governor of the territory. During his election campaign he insisted that gas services were to be supplied to the Trans-Baikal area and even voiced this demand during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, this appeal was again forwarded to the top executives of Gazprom. Despite the fact that it was at the very time when construction of the Power of Siberia pipeline was underway, Ilkovsky failed to lobby for development of gas distribution networks in the territory at the federal level.
In 2016, Gazprom's subsidiaries proposed two options for the gas pipeline. The first option was the Skovorodino - Chita - Ulan-Ude route. The second option of the route was Angarsk - Ulan-Ude – Chita, starting at the Southern Gas Production Center in the Irkutsk region. The local authorities predicted consumption of 3.3 bln cubic meters a year (potentially up to 6 bln cubic meters a year.) The cost of the gas pipeline to Chita was set at 40 bln rubles ($597,392,000.) Two years later, the territory approved the gas services program for 2018-2022, which would enable to supply at least 50% of consumers with gas. However, project development could take seven or more years. In addition, the question remains: in what shares will this very expensive project be financed by Gazprom itself, regional governments and third-party investors?
At the beginning of 2020, members of the Federation Council upper house of parliament from Buryatia and Trans-Baikal decided to try to update the topic of gas supplies infrastructure development once again. “This task should not be considered from the point of view of Gazprom's business only,” said Bair Zhamsuyev, a senator from the Trans-Baikal territory. “It seems odd that Russia supplies gas to neighboring countries and forgets about its own region. It is a shame that the Russian regions have a really low level of gas services after the capacious Power of Siberia gas pipeline was built. Therefore, a conclusion is made that the problem of gas supplies in the territory has taken a political dimension.”
This position was supported by Buryatia Senator Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn and Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko. She gave an instruction to include a paragraph on installation of gas services in the resolution of the upper house and to control it together with the Ministry for Development of Russian Far East. “If the Far East is a priority, it should be a priority for everyone, including Gazprom,” said Matvienko. “Let's look at the possibility of supplies of liquefied gas. However, the issue is to be solved quickly. We need to improve the competitiveness of business in the Far East. And this is the key task for the economic development.”
Answering to wek.ru, why this question has appeared again on the agenda, Alexey Fedorov says: “The question arose long ago. Today, it has become so acute because of the smog in Chita, the local capital. It made the city residents “open their eyes.” People began to understand that some actions are needed. Flash mobs started appearing in social media. The regional media supported these initiatives, and the petition picked up steam. As a result, the media put the topic of the smog in the spotlight, and the absence of gas supplies in the regions got to the top of local agendas. Then it got on the agenda at the federal level, too.
The message reached the authorities of different levels. It called for reaction. It came quickly, and now the issue is becoming more and more political. People are waiting for the federal authorities to say: “The Trans-Baikal territory is ours!” This is exactly the thought that comes to the minds of many residents of the territory when they see their bills for heating and electricity and compare them with their real salaries.”
The residents of Trans-Baikal themselves and experts have great doubts that the gas project will be implemented. “We are the residents of the Trans-Baikal territory,” says Dmitry Plyukhin, a well-known public figure in the region. “Therefore, we are not economically profitable for Gazprom, as well as for the state and the authorities. I am confident that nobody will take care of us. They need super profits from gas exports to other countries, but not from a million of Trans-Baikal residents. Power is more about earning money than about taking care of the country’s people. Just get suffocated in your city of Chita, and we will be looking for good commercial opportunities of transferring natural resources that theoretically belong to people.”
“The Power of Siberia project cost a little over 1 trillion rubles ($13,66 bln),” said politician Andrey Tumanov. “Gas for Chinese comrades! As optimistic economists say, it will never pay off. I am not going to quote the pessimistic ones... Well, except that the Chinese sky will be cleaner without burning coal everywhere!
“Now let's see how much installation of gas services to private houses and garden houses costs in Russia. The Moscow region is the most expensive -- about 500,000 rubles ($7,467.4) (very average figures are given). In other Russian regions the costs vary from 250,000 ($3,733.7) to 350,000 ($5,227.18) rubles. For Russia in general, let it be an average 400,000 ($5,973.92) rubles. It is necessary to understand, though, that the most part of this sum will end up in the pockets of monopolists who will spend the money on football teams and of corrupt officials who will waste it on their yachts. If we prevent it at least partially, the general installation of gas services in several towns will cost no more than 100,000 rubles ($1,366.34) at once. Now let’s divide our dreadful 1 trillion into quite affordable 100,000 rubles, that is, just removing five zeros off it. And we get 10 million rubles ($136,634.)
“Can you imagine how many Russian residents would finally get the desired gas? They would become happy and regular buyers of Russian gas. They would never be tempted by American liquefied natural gas and would never switch on the reverse flow of gas from Europe.
“The authorities are proud to say that at present, gas distribution networks reach 68% of Russia’s population. However, everybody who has ever been to Russia would laugh at those figures. Most likely, they were counted up as follows: if a trunk pipeline has built in the area, then all its residents have gas. But it should be taken into account that in order to get connected to the pipe, an average pensioner should save up money for ten years.
“In general, no matter how I try to make the calculations, every time they are wrong. Maybe the multiplication table should be corrected? Let’s make it more patriotic! And a trillion should be banned as an extremist number!”
In February, at a meeting of regional authorities, Trans-Baikal Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Gurulev said that in May, the drafting of documents for closing 16 boiler-houses and building a trolleybus line in Chita will begin.
However, even these measures will not drastically change the situation with smog in the city. Therefore, gas services are inevitable.
Gurulev said that if it is possible to prove the necessity of this project to the government, it will be possible to lay a pipeline to Chita already in 2023-2024: “Moreover, further construction of networks in the city itself is necessary. It is a very difficult and expensive process. And an ambitious target as well.”
Meanwhile, some dwellers of the territory believe that the development of the gas services infrastructure will deprive employees of their jobs at coal-mining enterprises. “There are some fears,” said Mikhail Churkin, acting minister of investment development of the Trans-Baikal territory. “But this is no reason to turn down the installation of gas services, as we have the largest coal consumer across the border. Today we need to take a comprehensive approach to this issue and to think about both exports and coal chemical industry.”
To sum it up, Alexey Fedorov notes: “We need political will and decisions from the upstairs. The situation may already be compared with an electricity transmission line laying along the bottom of the strait and the bridge to the Crimea. The crisis has come to a head -- the tariffs in the region are high. As a result, prices are high for everything. Moreover, the air here is hard to breathe. People are not satisfied with it and demand #gazvzabaikalye (gas services in Trans-Baikal.) Earlier, the Baikal residents would put up with the situation by tradition but their patience is wearing thin.”