One of the major challenges of the 21st century is without doubt climate change. For most countries, global warming poses a serious threat. Russia, however, has identified opportunities when it comes to the changing climate and the gradually decreasing icecap of the Arctic region. Moscow’s Arctic Strategy is intended to provide an edge for the Eurasian country in the areas of energy and defence while at the same time promoting the Northern Sea Route as an alternative shipping route.
Russia has vast oil and gas reserves in the Arctic. In terms of technically recoverable energy, the region contains as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas of which the Russian zone has the largest share, 48 billion barrels of oil and 43 trillion cubic meters of gas respectively. It amounts to 14 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its gas reserves. Despite global warming, the harsh weather conditions in the Arctic region require specialized infrastructure to extract and transport the oil to consumers.
Russia regards the Arctic as a strategic area where it is willing to invest significantly to secure the largest and most important share for itself. Moscow supports its claim by arguing that the crust structure of the Lomonosov ridge corresponds to the nearby Russian continental shelf which gives it the sole right to exploit much of the Arctic region. For this purpose, the Arktika research expedition vessel was dispatched in 2007.
Moscow is expanding its Arctic infrastructure with massive investments which dwarf those of the remaining littoral states. If the other Arctic countries do no begin investing in critical infrastructures such as harbors, airports and ice breaks, they could soon find themselves left behind in a new race for the North Pole.
The complexity of extracting energy in the Arctic
Despite significant investments, extracting oil and gas has not been an easy task for Russian energy companies. While it is possible to mention several successes such as Novatek’s Yamal LNG and Gazprom Neft’s Novy Port project, others such as Rosneft and Exxon have fared less well due to sanctions.
Completing the existing facilities wouldn’t have been possible without an extensive Arctic infrastructure. The Yamal LNG site is built in the permafrost on thousands of piles of varying shapes which is the first project of its kind in the world. The shipping of LNG has also required a new breed of vessel: the LNG ice-breaker tanker. The ship can sail in ice of up to 2.1 meters thick and defy the worst Arctic weather.
Also, Gazprom Neft’s Novy Port project had to deal with unique problems in a region where temperatures can drop below -50 Celsius. Oil produced at the Novoportovskoye field in the Yamal Peninsula is sent via a 100-kilometre pipeline to the Arctic Gate terminal in Novy Port. Due to the shallow waters, oil is sent 3 kilometres offshore in the Gulf of Ob to an 80-meter-tall structure through heated pipelines to maintain liquidity.
Next, the oil is loaded on specialized icebreaking supply vessels that transport the cargo to Murmansk via the Northern Sea route to be loaded on the Umba floating storage and offloading vessel moored in Kola Bay. The Umba can accommodate the simultaneous berthing of ships on both sides which makes it able to transfer the oil to non-icebreaking ships. That way, the company can return the icebreaking vessel quickly to the Gulf of Ob to pick up another load and increase efficiency.
According to Gazprom Neft chairman Alexander Dyukov: “Logistics are playing the vital role here, making it possible to continue shipping and transporting oil through the Kara Sea, regardless of the weather conditions. Building these icebreakers was an essential precondition to the effective development of Novy Port.”
To further support operations in the extreme circumstances, the Russian energy giant last year ordered another pair of powerful icebreaking supply vessel, the Alexandr Sannikov and Andrey Vilkitsky. Also, Rosneft has ordered four multi-purpose icebreaking supply vessels to be delivered at the end of 2019 and during the first half of 2020. With all these investments, energy companies seem to be betting big on the Russian Arctic Strategy. Ice-breaking vessels are an essential part of these activities.