Russia’s Arctic development rolls on
As Americans, Alaskans among them, continue to ponder the economic future of the U.S. Arctic, the Russians are charging full speed ahead into what they see as their future.
Russian ships are today at sea along the Northern Sea Route from the Arkhangelsk Seaport on the White Sea near Finland east to the Bering Strait, and a storage hub for liquified natural gas (LNG) is nearing completion in Bechevinskaya Bay on the Kamchatka Peninsula 550 miles west of U.S.-owned Attu Island in the Aleutians.
The first of two floating LNG storage barrages planned for the bay – the 400-hundred-yard-long, 60-yard-wide, Koryak FSU floating LNG storage barge – arrived in mid-July, according to Russia’s Port News.
“The Marine Transshipment Complex in Bechevinskaya Bay is designed to transship Novatek’s LNG cargoes from ice-class gas carriers following the Northern Sea Route from the area of the Arctic fields to gas carriers without ice class,” the website reported. “The latter then will deliver LNG cargo to consumers in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Novatek manages a massive gas field and gas liquefaction project on the edge of the Arctic Ocean near the community of Sabetta, about 1,500 miles northeast of Moscow.
The website LNG Prime reported the Yamal project there produced its billionth cubic meter of gas in May. The operation is now capable of producing 900,000 tons of LNG per year, and a second Novatek project – Arctic LNG 2 – is slated to come online later this year to further increase production.
Novatek has partnered in the operation with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China’s Silk Road Fund and France’s Total Energies, one of the globe’s so-called “supermajors” of publicly owned – versus government-owned – oil and gas companies.
China has been helping Russia evade Western sanctions against Russia aimed at ending its war against Ukraine, and Total has refused to remove itself from the Novatek project despite those sanctions.
In July, the company told France 24 that it has a “duty to contribute to the security of Europe’s gas supply from the Yamal LNG plant under long-term contracts that it must honor as long as European governments do not impose sanctions against Russian gas.”
With a regional headquarters for Asia based in Singapore, the company is now touting the Northern Sea Route as enabling “ships to reach Asia – where many customers await the LNG that Yamal LNG will produce – in 15 days via the Bering Strait, compared to 30 days by the traditional route through the Suez Canal. Journeys via the Northern Sea Route can be made between May and November, when ice conditions allow.”
Ice-reinforced LNG carriers transiting the Bering Strait, the 55-mile-wide narrows that separates the Arctic Ocean from the Bering Sea, would appear to pose few environmental risks in Alaska on the eastern edge of that opening.
Of more concern are the crude oil tankers the Russians are now also pushing into use on the Northern Sea Route.
“Higher traffic levels in these icy, foggy and rough seas increase the risk of oil spills and other accidents that could cause irreversible damage to the marine ecosystems and jeopardize the ability of Bering Strait communities to hunt and fish in their local waters,” the Ocean Conservancy has warned.
Shell, another of the oil supermajors, spent more than $7 billion on oil exploration in American waters just north of the Strait in the 2010s with hopes of beginning offshore production before concluding extremely stringent standards for environmental protection imposed by the Obama administration would make production uneconomic.
The Russians take a somewhat more lackadaisical approach to environmental regulations. Canada’s CBC has labeled Russia “the world’s worst oil polluter.”
Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW), an international broadcaster, two years ago called Russia “a country of oil spills.” Most of those spills happen on land, but growing concerns have been raised about Russian oil shipping by sea since the Ukraine war began.
“Since Europe’s embargo on Russian oil exports, aging, clandestine tankers have been transporting oil and conducting transshipment operations from one vessel to another,” France’s Le Monde reported earlier this month, joining other national and international media in warning of the growing potential for a disaster at sea involving a Russian tanker.
Some of those Russian tankers are now on the Northern Sea Route (NSR).
“The flow of Russian crude oil to China via the Arctic also continues unabated,” High North News reported last week. “Two additional Aframax oil tankers, Hammurabi and Olympiysky Prospect, each carrying around 750,000 barrels of oil, are about to enter the waters of the NSR.
“This follows at least six oil tankers bound for China that already took the route this summer.”
The latest ships to sail left the Baltic Sea, entered the North Sea and turned north for Arctic waters instead of south toward the Suez Canal as has been a norm for such tanker traffic.
“It is particularly noteworthy that the recent shipments consist of Urals crude, and not oil from the Arctic, indicating a broadening of the usage of the NSR,” High North reported.
Gambling with ice
Russia has previously restricted traffic on the NSR to ice-reinforced vessels, but that appears to be changing. The Hammurabi is a rusting, 17-year-old tanker sailing under the flag of Panama.
High Countr noted new rules of “ice-class no more.”
“In a likely sign of things to come the route is also seeing one of its first major non-ice class ships,” the website reported. “The Capesize bulk carrier Gingo departed Murmansk on August 18 and is bound for Qingdao (China).
The Gingo appears to be the largest vessel ever to attempt the NSR. Many other non-ice-class ships might be in line to follow it east toward Alaska.
Interfax, a Russian website, in March reported a Russian Federation council was told that discussions of shipping oil “in the summer-autumn navigation along the Northern Sea Route in an easterly direction on non-ice-class tankers, accompanied by icebreakers” were underway.
There are no signs Russia is considering any rollback in NSR shipping, and many signs pointing the other way.
Russia’s future vision
“Russia continues to demonstrate its determination to transform the Northern Sea Route into a competitive, commercial shipping corridor with a focus on building ice-class supply vessels, building partnerships with ‘friendly countries,’ and ensuring year-round navigation,” The Maritime Executive has reported.
‘Rosatom Director General Alexei Likhachev told global participants at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that the NSR is fast emerging as a potential new trade route connecting Asia and Europe due to changing global trade landscape, which has been brought about by the invasion of Ukraine.”
And the Chinese, who lack for domestic supplies of oil and gas, are deeply involved in trying to assist the Russians in the Arctic.
Though the naval maneuvers attracted attention, they would appear of less real concern in the region than an oil spill given the lack of clean-up response resources on either the Russian or American side of the Bering Sea and the recognized difficulty of cleaning up oil spilled in ice.
Should a large spill take place, the chances of it reaching Alaska shores are significant given the generally easterly winds prevailing in the Bering Sea.
After oil from the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound of 1989 escaped into the Gulf of Alaska, currents and winds carried it almost 500 miles west and then southwest to foul beaches on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula.