As war rages a world away from Alaska in Ukraine, the environmental threat to the 49th state associated with that war continues to grow almost unnoticed.
With Western nations boycotting Russian gas and oil to starve Russia of the cash needed to finance the war, Norway-based High North News is reporting Russia is on the verge of fulfilling Vladimir Putin’s dream of a year-round Northern Sea Route through the Arctic to Asia where a totalitarian Chinese government has no interest in the fate of Ukraine and the government of India appears happy for the chance to obtain petrochemicals at bargain-basement prices.
The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, which carefully monitors oil and gas sales because of its own vested interests, now describes China as a nation that has “provided a lifeline to Moscow as European refiners turned away from Russian crude oil even before the European Union ban came into force. This allowed Russia to maintain crude oil exports in 2022 as China and India absorbed the surplus oil that was selling at up to a discount of $40 per barrel to global benchmark North Sea Brent.”
The shortest route to market for these shipments destined for China or India follows Russia’s northern coast to the Chukchi Sea and then south through the Bering Strait. This is the same area in which Royal Dutch Shell once wanted to produce oil. Having spent $7 billion on exploration, Shell abandoned Alaska citing high costs of development driven, in large part, by environmental restrictions.
“While we support regulations that enforce high safety and environmental standards, the unpredictable federal regulatory environment for the Alaska Outer Continental Shelf also made it difficult to operate efficiently,” company spokesman Curtis Smith said at the time.
The unpredictable regulatory environment was, in turn, tied to big concerns that had been raised about the difficulty of cleaning up an oil spill in broken ice and the general lack of government resources to respond to an oil spill. A year after Shell left the stage, a team of researchers from Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany penned a paper for Ambio, a journal on the environment and society, reviewing the state-of-the-art and recent developments in “Oil spill response capabilities and technologies for ice-covered Arctic marine waters.”
Some progress had been made, they concluded, and some techniques might aid in mopping up at least part of a spill but “any of the human-intervention techniques such as burning and dispersants remove oil from the ocean surface, but their impact on the Arctic ecosystem, and in the case of burning the impact to the atmosphere, is presently unknown. Studies need to be performed to quantify their impact of the marine environment and how this impact varies both temporally and spatially.”
They suggested then that Shell’s departure provided researchers a window of opportunity to investigate better clean-up techniques before a clean-up became necessary.
“At the current prevailing oil price, oil exploration and production in Arctic waters remain at low levels, as does Arctic shipping,” they concluded; “however, the consequences of an accidental spill of oil (crude or processed) into the Arctic marine environment could be severe. Given these low levels of oil and shipping activity, we have a ‘window of opportunity’ to develop more robust solutions and protocols to meet the above-mentioned challenges.
“This needed research, and planning is not inexpensive, and will need continuous evaluation and refinement as science, data access and technology improve. No one can guarantee an accidental spill cannot happen, and no response method is risk free or completely effective. Therefore, to reduce the likelihood of an accident and accompanying consequences, we must have a comprehensive understanding of the issues involved, ensure best practices are followed, have a robust risk management framework, and have a responsive decision-making structure is in place.”
Since then, research has continued, mainly in Norway, but nothing has happened in Alaska, where authorities remained ill-equipped to even reach an oil spill let alone deal with it. U.S. Coast Guard Base Kodiak remains the federal government’s main operating station in Alaska, and it is almost 750 miles from the Bering Strait.
The Coast Guard’s only heavy icebreaker is even farther away. It’s homeported in Seattle.
And now those “low levels of oil and shipping activity” in the Arctic are becoming bigger levels.
When the LNG Carrier Vladimir Voronin successfully completed a roundtrip journey just days ago, High North reporter Malte Humpert was moved to observe that the relatively quick turnaround time of 42 days “in the heart of winter highlight(s) how Russia’s goal of year-round exports to Asia is becoming increasingly feasible.”
Most of the Arctic shipping now is being done in Arc7, ice-class, LNG-powered tankers which would appear to pose little immediate danger to the environment in the event of an accident. LNG is the liquified form of natural gas, which is mainly methane.
In a worst-case shipping accident, one which would lead to the rupture of tanks on an LNG carrier, there is a considerable threat to the crew from asyphixation in the gas cloud, or to the ship and crew together in the event of an explosion, But the gas itself escaped into the atmosphere, unlike oil that spills onto the water and then begins emulsifying into a bigger, harder to deal with mess of water and oil that creates a goo called “mousse.”
Though shipments of crude oil remain small, given that Russia has only three ice-equipped oil tankers, there is nothing to stop the Russians from shipping ever more oil via the Northern Sea Route. The country is already planning transhipment points on the western edge of the Bering Sea to allow ice-equipped vessels to ferry gas, oil and manufactured goods non-ice-equipped ships that can haul the cargo to Asia and allow the ice-equipped vessels to make more journeys across the Arctic.
A Russia Briefing Paper written by Dezan Shira & Associates, a global business consultancy, in August describes Russia’s plan for the Northern Sea Route as part of a plan to cut “Europe off from all Russian Arctic resources and concentrate on Asian customers.
“The plan includes more than 150 events: the construction of the Utrenny terminal for liquefied natural gas and gas condensate, the Bay Sever oil loading terminal, and the Yenisei coal terminal. In addition, it is also planned to build onshore and hydraulic structures to supply the Baimskoye field, create marine transshipment complexes for liquefied natural gas in the Kamchatka Territory and the Murmansk Region, and a hub port for organizing transit traffic in Vladivostok.”
Western boycotts of Russian natural resources tied to the war in Ukraine have only increased Russia’s incentives to do business with Asia, and the Northern Sea Route presents by far the shortest route to get there.
Time is money
The speed of the latest trip by the Vladimir Voronin was “especially noteworthy,” Humpert wrote. The ship delivered its cargo in China only 20 days after leaving port in Russia.
“A comparable journey via the Suez Canal would take around 45-50 days on average,” he said. “In total the round trip voyage took 42 days, compared to 90-100 days from Sabetta to China via the Suez Canal route.”
Given that time is money in the shipping business, reducing shipping time by more than 45 days is a big deal. The return voyage of the ship was reportedly slowed two days bu ice, but Atomflot – a Russian company that runs the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered ice breakers – said that despite “difficult ice conditions, the average speed of the icebreaking assistance was about 10 knots.”
Atomflot now operates three icebreakers and says “the integrated developed of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation is one of the strategic priorities of the state. Increasing the volume of traffic along the Northern Sea Route is paramount for solving the tasks set in the field of transport and delivery of goods.”
All of that increased traffic will go through the Bering Strait into the Bering Sea. The Russians have yet to report the 2022 volume of traffic, but it has been steadily increasing. It was up 5.7 percent in 2021, according to Russia’s Port News, with the 35 tonnes moved exceeding the Northern Sea Route Federal Project’s goal of 32 million tonnes.
Before invading Ukraine, Russian shipping goals were set for 80 million tonnes by the end of 2024 rising to 110 to 115 million tonnes by 2030. Increasing cooperation with Asian businesses can only service to increase those volumes.
India has been buying record amounts of Russian oil. Reuters reported at at mid-month that Russia had become “the third-largest oil supplier to India in 2022, making up about 15 percent of total purchases, dragging down OPEC’s share to the lowest in more than a decade, data obtained from industry sources show.”
Only a small portion of it is moving via that Northern Sea Route at this time, but improvements in organizing fast-moving convoys across the Arctic and through the Bering Strait to Asia is likely to alter that.
Meanwhile, Russia and China just shy of a year ago inked a cooperation agreement The New Yorker headlined as “a Pact Against America and the West.” It is designed to boost Russian shipment of raw materials to China, a global manufacturing giant. China has ignored Western pressure to join the economic boycott of Russia aimed at forcing it out of Ukraine.
Over the Christmas holiday, China actually doubled down on its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine with Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly saying the country planned to “deepen strategic mutual trust and mutually beneficial cooperation” with Russia in the year ahead.
That mutual cooperation means only more Russian shipping traffic through the Bering Strait, which has led some some maritime experts to suggest that it is no longer a question of whether there will be a shipping disaster but when.