A few days ago, with a window seat flying from Tokyo to Paris, I spent much of that time transfixed by Siberia below. More than half the 12 hours of flying time is spent crossing Siberia in an arc from Khabarovsk to the Arctic northern coast of Russia, and then down over Finland. It is easy to become fascinated by the seemingly unending vastness of the place, punctured only by white iced-over rivers and one or two signs of human settlement, with one of those at least on a railway line.
Siberia is already a mining powerhouse. From it comes 29% of Russia’s tungsten, 42% of its uranium, 43% of its silver, 44% of all the gold mines in Russia, 81% of the molybdenum and 96% of Russia’s output of platinum group metals. There are also known deposits of many othr critical metals, including cobalt, selenium and tellurium. But what more remains to be discovered?
We simply don’t know how much more is there. In southern Siberia, for example, there are expected to be found large deposits of tungsten, uranium and rare earths. (Strangely, Russia has not managed to get its rare earth act together.)
But some idea of the potential can be gauged from a recent reported in the London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. It reported that a diamond field containing “trillions of carats” had been been discovered under a giant meteorite crater in Siberia, the Popigay crater, the seventh largest on Earth. Some gauge of the importance of this can be discerned from comparing this find to the huge diamond deposit at Yakutia which, according to the Geological and Mineralogical Institute in Novosibirsk, contains 1 billion carats.
Simply put, no one (at least outsde Russia) knows the entirety of what lies beneath those forbidding expanses of Siberia. Part of the problem is that Russia really is not open to business with the Western mining companies that could accelerate the appraisal of the vast region. While several former Soviet republics (Kazakhstan most notably, but also Georgia) have been open to deals with foreign companies, and the former satellite states of Eastern Europe also, Russia remains a closed shop to all but the bravest of Western companies. Just look how BP, one of the world’s largest oil companies, got pushed around back in 2009.
In early 2007 the Russian government limited the rights of foreigners to own majority stakes in strategtic metals deposits (the only exemptions at the time being for deals that were already negotiated but the project not having commenced). “Strategic” was defined in the case of copper, for example, as being a deposit with more than 500,000 tonnes of contained metal, and gold ones with more than 50 tonnes of contained metal. Anything under that is peanuts by world standards. For all the physical and geological challenges, not to mention those of political and corporate governance, which foreign company would bother for anything as small as set by those limited. The current Ukraine crisis and obvious intransigence in Moscow do not add any encouragement for foreigners to chance their arms (and cash).
Meanwhile, the Russians have suddenly realised that Siberia could be an even more important contributor to their economy. In April 2013, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced the “Far East Development Program”, with $16 billion to be spent developing Siberia. The Chinese have also signed deals for access to resources in Siberia (the flight time from Beijing to Irkutsk, the “capital” of Siberia, is just two hours).
As for the physical challenges, Amur Minerals Corporation, a nickel and copper explorer, says it will use zeppelins manufactured by Worldwide Aeros Corporation to fly in equipment and supplies to its exploration site, the cost of the two airships being far less than the alternative of building an all-weather road to the nearest railway station, all of 320km away. The airships can each carry 250 tonnes payload.
If Siberia is as rich as we conjecture, Russia could well tilt the scales as a metals power. At present, though, that day seems far away.