Oil and Gas towns in Western Siberia: past, present and future challenges

Dans le cadre de la conférence  First International Conference on Urbanisation in the Arctic, qui s’est tenu du 28 au 30 août  2012 à Ilimmarfik, Nuuk, Groenland.

Yvette VAGUET,




Philippe JEANNE.

Article paru dans Nordregio, Nordregio, 2013, 6 (125-132)

Iintroduction :

Western Siberia, lying mainly in a permafrost area, has been urbanised for two decades or thereabouts. Russia
has had the most notable experience of urbanisation within the circumpolar zone and the landscape bears
the most consummate signs of this experience in the region.
Oil extraction constitutes the major determinant of this urbanisation. The Ob’ region is one of the biggest
oil and gas basins in the world, and contributes up to 68 % of the national production of oil and 91 % of gas.
Thanks to Western Siberia, Russia is the first gas producer in the world, and the second for oil. This exploitation started in 1964. During the Soviet era, the development of the oil/gas industry came with the spread
of modern society northwards within the almost uninhabited taiga first, and the tundra later, as far as the Yamal peninsula along the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
When the USSR collapsed less than 30 years later, 23 out of 28 towns had been created ex-nihilo and were as sociated with considerable in-migration. Building human residential and industrial infrastructure on this
scale and at this pace within such a harsh natural environment, almost without any permanent human settlement nearby, was a challenge in itself. Town and country planning currently have new challenges to face.
One can wonder if these urban centres were actual towns rather than just short-term settlements. The current debate concerns the future of these towns: whether they can survive beyond the peak oil or even earlier by
flooding of the marshy Ob’ basin due to global warming and its associated melting permafrost. However, what lies in the future could also be a flourishing economy with the prospect of oil-and-gas development
northwards to the Arctic Ocean. Awaiting a response, the region still presents a positive migration balance
and nowadays Western Siberian towns are trying to diversify their economic profile. Municipalities are also
trying to improve the quality of life in order to retain, if not attract, inhabitants, especially the more highly
skilled. Moreover, here and there in these towns, there are evident signs of gentrification, with the spread of
the detached house model, as in many parts of the world.
To sum up, upcoming challenges question the resilience of this urban geographical system. The answer is
not as easy as it might appear. This article introduces the complexity of the subject. Because of its unique
50-year experience, Western Siberia is a key area when considering urban development in the Arctic.

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