Russian oil tankers taking to Northern Sea Route
Coming soon to the Bering Sea near Alaska, ever more Russian oil tankers with the inherent danger of oil spills.
While Alaskans talk and talk and talk about Arctic development (the latest “Arctic Encounter” in Anchorage produced enough hot air to float an armada of hot-air balloons to the Lower 48, but nothing else), the Russians are doing Arctic development.
Alaska gets to share in the risks with none of the benefits.
As this is written, a subsidiary of Novatek, the largest independent producer of Russian natural gas, is at work on a transshipment facility for liquified natural gas (LNG) on the Kamchatka Peninsula on the western side of the Bering.
Slated to be completed sometime this year, “the transshipment complexes are part of Novatek’s logistical chain to optimize the use of the Arc7 ice-class tanker fleet with the aim to ensure efficient and cost-effective LNG transportation from Arctic LNG 2 and other Novatek’s projects,” according to Russia’s Port News. “LNG cargos will be transferred from the Arc7 ice-class LNG tankers to conventional tankers at each location.”
The plan is to free the ice-breakers from open water hauling to maximize the time they can spend on the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic Ocean.
The Kamchatka facility will allow for offloading the cargo at an ice-free port where it can be loaded into traditional tankers for shipment to markets in China, India and the Mideast.
China, India, Saudia Arabia and the UAE have all become major buyers of Russian gas since the start of the war in Ukraine and the Western economic boycott that followed.
“With Western markets essentially shut for Russia’s crude and products, new trade routes have emerged, and the countries sitting on some of the largest oil reserves are now importing Russian diesel, naphtha, and fuel oil, according to tanker-tracking and data commodity services,” the Oil Price website reported this week.
“Saudi Arabia and the UAE, traditional Middle Eastern allies of the United States, are not shying away from importing, storing, trading, or re-exporting Russian fuels despite American efforts to persuade them to join a crackdown on Russian attempts to evade the Western sanctions on its oil.”
Not just so much gas
While Novatek is focused on gas, Rosneft – Russia’s largest oil producer – in March inked a deal with India to boost shipments of crude oil.
“India has been the biggest buyer of Russia’s benchmark Urals grade crude in March. Deliveries to India are set to account for more than 50 percent of all seaborne Urals exports this month, with China in second place,” Reuters reported at the time.
“Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said on Tuesday that Russian oil sales to India jumped 22-fold last year, but he did not specify the volume sold.”
Shifting markets for Russian oil could have big implications for the sea that separates Russia and Alaska. Rosneft is now in the process of building Russia’s largest-ever oil terminal in central Siberia near Dickson, the northernmost community in Asia.
Already China’s biggest supplier of oil, Russia is also deeply involved with India, “which published its first Arctic policy earlier this year, (and) is looking for opportunities in the Far North, too,” Trym Eiterjord reported in December in The Diplomat, a publication focused on Asia-Pacific affairs.
“Appearing virtually at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September, (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi announced that his country ‘is keen to strengthen its partnership with Russia on Arctic issues,’ and noted that there is ‘immense potential for cooperation in the field of energy.’
“Indian oil majors have been active in Russian Arctic energy projects for over a decade through their stakes in the Vankorneft joint venture, which operates the Vankor oil and gas cluster southeast of the Ob Gulf. Recently Rosneft, the majority stakeholder, has mulled redirecting production through a new 25-million-tons-per-year pipeline that would run northward to the Arctic coast, for oil to be shipped out on the Northern Sea Route, instead.”
To move such oil to market, the Russians are now talking about using traditional, crude-oil tankers on the Northern Sea Route.
“Russian oil companies are desperately looking for new markets. Nuclear icebreaker operator Rosatom now offers Lukoil and Gazprom Neft escort across icy Arctic waters to Asia.”
U.S. environmental organizations helped force Royal Dutch Shell to abandon plans for producing oil from U.S. leases in the Chukchi Sea at the eastern end of the Northern Sea Route because of fears of an oil spill, but they have no power over Russian tankers and the oil spill threat they pose.
Globally, spills from tankers have fallen from an average of 1.6 million gallons a year in the 1990s to 61,600 gallons per year in the 2010s, a 2022 study concluded.
Oil from the Exxon Valdez fouled much of Prince William Sound and good parts of the Alaska coast to the north as far as the Alaska Peninsula. The largest oil spill in U.S. history, the disaster led the country to enact requirements for double-hulled tankers in U.S. waters, and many other countries and international bodies followed suit.
Authorities on marine safety are, however, warning that Russian tanker oversight has lagged behind the rest of the world.
“Old tankers typically sold for scrap are instead hauling crude.”
“Russia’s shadow fleet not only helps the Kremlin subvert European sanctions. It is also a serious threat to Europe’s marine environment,” Jan Stockbruegger, a University of Copenhagen researcher wrote in the EU Observer this month. “Many Russian tankers are elderly and substandard vessels with questionable insurance and safety standards.
“One analysis found that up to 40 tankers carrying Russian crude did not have standard insurance coverage and ‘routine safety-management certificates.’
“Cameroon, a popular flag for Russian sanction subversion activities, has been blacklisted by international port authorities because of its poor safety record.”
Whether any of those tankers could be pressed into service along the Northern Sea Route and in the Bering Sea is an unknown, but Western sanctions against Russia tied to the war in Ukraine have been pushing shipping more and more in that direction.
The 850-foot oil tanker Vasily Dinkov made a run to China via the Northern Sea Route in October.
“The voyage took place shortly before the EU introduced its oil ban on Russia,” Atle Staalesen reported for Barents.
“The (European) Commission’s sixth package of sanctions, adopted in June last year, prohibits all purchase, import or transfer of crude oil and certain petroleum products from Russia to the EU. Russian companies today sell oil to China, India and other so-called ‘friendly countries’ with a great discount.”
Staalesen cited Russia Federation Council member Konstantin Dolgov observing that his country has so far been able to “overcome the troubles created by the sanctions.
“‘The current geopolitical situation triggers difficulties in resolving certain issues, but it is not sufficiently critical for a review of our general development plans,’ (Dolgov) said.”
Neither the Alaska nor U.S. governments have any real oil-spill response capability in the region, and there is no major port from which to launch such a response.
Nine years ago, when the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) gathered experts to model what might happen with a Bering Sea oil spill, the results did not look good for Alaska. The experts concluded that:
- Increasing transport of oil and gas through the Bering Straitthreatens protected territory of the Beringia National Park
- An oil spill on the Russian side of the Bering Strait has a high probability of crossing to the US waters, affecting the entire ecosystem
- Prevention and response systems in the Bering Strait are either missing or are inadequate
- US-Russia transboundary collaboration and knowledge sharing is needed to support planning, preparedness, risk reduction, and incident response.
Russia-U.S. planning, preparedness, risk reduction and more have largely evaporated in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
A new ‘Cold War’
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine undermined arrangements that, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, “had for a long time been hailed by many as a highly cooperative and unusually peaceful part of international affairs.
“First, the Arctic Council ceased to function when its seven members other than Russia suspended participation in official meetings. This left the region without its main intergovernmental venue for cooperation.
“Next, in search of security, Finland and Sweden requested to join NATO. Furthermore, Russian “hybrid (military) tactics” – to now possibly also include the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines, as well as that of undersea cables in the Arctic and near-Arctic, among other activities – have raised the level of alarm in NATO members like Norway and nearby states.”
Suffice it to say, there looks to be little hope of cooperation in the event of a Bering Sea oil spill given that the U.S. State Department staked out the moral high ground a year ago.
“The core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, based on international law, have long underpinned the work of the Arctic Council, a forum which Russia currently chairs,” it said in a public statement. “In light of Russia’s flagrant violation of these principles, our representatives will not travel to Russia for meetings of the Arctic Council. Additionally, our states are temporarily pausing participation in all meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies, pending consideration of the necessary modalities that can allow us to continue the Council’s important work in view of the current circumstances.”
According to the documents cited by the government-owned Canadian news organization, “every year several hundred thousand tonnes of petroleum products are transported by rivers into the Arctic seas.
“Severe pollution of surface waters has been found beyond the boundaries of oil- and gas-bearing deposits and even the basins of the rivers flowing into the Arctic seas.”
Russian attitudes on environmental protection appear to differ significantly from those of the U.S.