Soviet Union Table of Contents
Natural gas replaced oil as the "growth fuel" of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Gas is cheaper than oil to extract, and Soviet gas deposits are estimated to be three times larger than oil deposits. In 1983 an output of 536 billion cubic meters of gas put the Soviet Union ahead of the United States in gas production for the first time. In 1987 that figure rose to 727 billion cubic meters. As with oil, the majority of natural gas production (85 percent in 1965) came from the European sector until the 1970s. In that decade, the Volga-Ural and Central Asian fields dominated, but by 1983 western Siberia provided nearly 50 percent of Soviet natural gas. That area's Urengoy field was the largest in the world; its reserves were estimated at 7.8 trillion cubic meters.
Because of transport distance and harsh climate, fuel extraction in western Siberia is a monumental undertaking that becomes more formidable as the industry moves northward. Although high-power pumping stations are necessary to move gas over long distances, in the late 1980s the Soviet machine-building industry was not providing adequate equipment to maintain a steady flow through some of the major lines. The chief development target after Urengoy was the Yamburg field, directly to its north. Then, after 1990, major work was to begin in the Yamal Peninsula, for which preparations began in the late 1980s. But cost and environmental concerns delayed the Yamal project in 1989. Because growth targets were based on the timely opening of large Yamal deposits, the delay was potentially a very serious setback. The center of the older Volga-Ural fields is Orenburg; other major gas fields are located in the Uzbek, Turkmen, and Ukrainian republics.
Soviet industrial planners were replacing oil with gas widely and successfully, and proportional investment in gas increased drastically in the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1988 the shares of oil and gas in the fuel balance were equal (at 39 percent) for the first time. Gas was also a vital export product. The main instrument of gas export policy was the pipeline connecting Urengoy (and, projected for 1990, the Yamburg field) with Western Europe. This line began pumping gas to four West European countries (Austria, France, Italy, and the Federal Republic of Germany [West Germany]) in 1984, despite strong opposition from the United States. Delivery was scheduled to increase to a steady rate of 57 billion cubic meters per year by 1990. In 1988 total Soviet gas exports reached 88 billion cubic meters, after adding Greece, Turkey, and Switzerland to the customer list. Meanwhile, pipeline reliability became a serious problem; hasty construction and poor maintenance caused many accidents and breakdowns in the system.
Data as of May 1989