Russia’s Arctic Natural Gas and the Definition of Sustainability

Sustainability as a corporate governance objective entered the Russian energy sector in the early 2000s. Major state-owned companies began publishing corporate social responsibility and sustainability reports. Instead of examining these documents, though, I want to understand how sustainability is defined in advertisements directed at the broader public at home and abroad. I argue that the narrative of these advertisements better reflects how both companies and viewers understand sustainability. Advertisements, as a central component in branding that can represent how corporations actually think (see Moeran 2005), are a productive site for unmasking how Russian energy, political elites, and beliefs about commerce and responsibility are brought together.

Comparing how social and environmental sustainability is defined in two commercials produced by the Russian gas company Gazprom, I see two distinct sustainabilities at play: an ethno-racist narrative intended for the domestic audience and a mainstream sustainability narrative tuned for the international audience. My first example is the thirty-minute documentary Gazifikatsiya Rossii, which tells the “story of gas”: how it is produced in the Arctic periphery, transported through Russian lands, and delivered to consumers in the Russian ethnic heartland. The narrative frames gas as the substance that ties Russian space and people together. Moreover, amalgamating energy and people in this way promotes a Great Power identity based on natural resources and energy, which has been constructed during Vladimir Putin’s reign. My second example, just ten minutes long, was produced for an international audience and shows how Gazprom is committed to global social and environmental standards in their operations in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. Here, the narrative conforms to the scientific understanding of sustainability, portraying Gazprom as an international company fully compatible with international social and environmental norms.

The most interesting feature of Gazifikatsiya Rossii is its silence on social and environmental problems caused along the commodity chain (see Bridge 2011). This is a tactic of power. The concept of ethnicity is represented through the promotion of Russianness, not only through cartographic presentation but also through oral statements that neglect the region’s diversity, such as the Nenets, Hanti, Komi, and Selkup people. One explanation for this choice is the need to define natural gas, culturally and ethnically, as purely Russian. Another might be the fact that by commenting on the ethnic plurality of the region, Gazprom would become responsible for acknowledging the societal effects of oil and gas production, bringing land rights, welfare issues, and the economic equality of Native peoples to the fore.

It is also interesting how the environmental question of gas production and transport is almost completely disregarded. For example, the environmental consequences of gas transportation and the energy inefficiency caused by Gazprom’s de facto pipeline monopoly are not discussed. Russian oil companies have not been able to meet the associated gas utilization levels and have been forced to burn off the gas in flares, because Gazprom has prevented oil companies from feeding gas into the national pipeline system (Røland 2010).

The video intended for the international audience accentuates the point that Gazprom’s operations in Vietnam and elsewhere follow the highest international environmental standards, including practices around environmental impact assessments. Therefore, a question arises about whether Russian energy companies are trying to construct an image of a socially responsible (if ethnically selective) player in their domestic operations, while bypassing central environmental questions. Along with private energy companies like Lukoil that have been criticized for neglecting their social and environmental responsibilities in upstream operations, Gazprom has started to build an image of a socially responsible company by using the material dimensions of energy as one element of this construction (Rogers 2012, 2014).

I argue that Gazprom has tailored these commercials in ways that reflect what the audience anticipates, but also how the company and the political elites behind the company want to define their responsibilities. Thus, we see two distinct sustainabilities in Gazprom’s videos: an ethno-racist narrative intended for a domestic audience that confines social responsibility to ethnic Russians, and a mainstream sustainability narrative aiming to balance economic, social, and environmental objectives while pleasing an international audience.

As I compare the narratives in these videos to discussions of sustainability in Russia (Tynkkynen 2010), the lack of references to the reconciliation of social and environmental needs via democratic, grass-roots empowerment is understandable. The challenge posed by environmental sustainability is viewed as a top-down management problem, which is low on the political agenda. However, new observations suggest that social sustainability is becoming more central, even as it is defined in a narrow and ethnically discriminatory way. The centrality of social responsibility to Russia’s energy developments is, in my view, linked both to the official egalitarian discourse of the Soviet era, as well as to the guilt and pressure that hydrocarbon businesses experience as they operate in culturally fragile environments worldwide—from the indigenous lands of the Russian and Canadian Arctic to the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Nigerian Delta.

References

Bridge, Gavin. 2011. “Past Peak Oil: Political Economy of Energy Crises.” In Global Political Ecology, edited by Richard Peet, Paul Robbins, and Michael J. Watts, 307–24. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Moeran, Brian. 2005. “Tricks of the Trade: The Performance and Interpretation of Authenticity.” Journal of Management Studies 42, no. 5: 901–22.

Rogers, Douglas. 2012. “The Materiality of the Corporation: Oil, Gas, and Corporate Social Technologies in the Remaking of a Russian Region.” American Ethnologist 39, no. 2: 284–96.

_____. 2014. “Energopolitical Russia: Corporation, State, and the Rise of Social and Cultural Projects.” Anthropological Quarterly 87, no. 2: 431–51.

Røland, Tonje Hulbak. 2010. “Associated Petroleum Gas in Russia: Reasons for Non-Utilization.” Report 13/2010. Lysaker, Norway: Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

Tynkkynen, Veli-Pekka. 2010. “From Mute to Reflective: Changing Governmentality in St. Petersburg and the Priorities of Russian Environmental Planning.” Journal of Environment Planning and Management 53, no. 2: 241–56.