Russian icebreakers escorting gas condensate ship to China, halving usual journey

frontpageingressimage_50-years-victory.jpg Photo: Atomflot

The move is aimed at justifying some of Russia’s oil and gas projects in the delicate region off the countries Arctic coast, notably the controversial Shtokman gas field project, which aims at tapping the 3.2 trillion cubic meters of gas and 31 million tons of gas condensate field in Russia’s white sea.

The main purpose of the trial journey, the tanker’s owner said, was to determine the possibilities of delivering oil and gas safely and economically to Asia on a regular basis via the Northern Sea Route.

But even the director of Sovkomflot – whose Baltika tanker will be delivering the gas condensate –  his doubts that the two icebreakers that will be leading the gas condensate ship to south east asia will bring in a big enough profit margin.

The Baltika tanker ship, with a deadweight of over 100,000 tonnes, left Russia’s north-western port of Murmansk on 14 August.
 
It will be joined later by Atomflot’s Rossiya and 50-Years of Victory nuclear-powered icebreakers. The ships will travel some 7000 miles to reach China, compared with the 12,000 miles that it takes to travel via the traditional Suez Canal route.

Currently, Russia has seven operational nuclear-powered icebreakers, but only five are in operation.  The newest of them the 50-years of Victory was launched in 2007. The Rossiya underwent a major retrofit in 2004. The Arktika and the Sibir are currently undergoing repairs, and the Lenin was taken out of service and turned into a museum.

The icebreakers will clear a way through the ice of the Northern Sea Route, which accounts for some 3000 miles of the journey, said WWN, and the ship the icebreakers are escorting will be laden with gas condensate produced by Novatek, Russia’s second largest natural gas producer.

Desperate to grab hold of Asian oil and gas markets

According to Sovcomflot’s representative in Moscow, Mikail Lozovoi, a 70,000 metric ton ship of gas condensate left the Port of Murmansk on August 14 for an undisclosed location in China, the inoSMI Russian news website reported.

Russia is desperately trying to gain a foothold in the Asian oil and gas market as an out for its Arctic and Eastern Siberian gas and oil fields. Moscow is currently engage in building a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, and may build a pipleline to China, InoSMI said.

Further, Russia’s gas monopoly Gaprom last year began construction of a gas condensate facility in Russia’s far east. The gas is then put into a condensed state and delivered by tankers.

As for the tankers leaving Murmansk for the far east, Yevgeny Ambrosov, General Director of Sovkomflot  said that, “We decided to try a new route of delivery because the south-eastern Asia is an important oil and gas market.”

But he added that “even using the accompaniment of icebreakers could lead to a situation where we only break even. It’s possible that this won’t bring any special material profit.” 

Northern sea route dormant for many years

Shipments from the European part of Russia to the Far East via the Northern Sea Route have not occurred for many years. However, the latest shipment is the first of its kind using such a high-tonnage tanker via that route, WWN reported.

The Northern Sea Route was officially opened to international shipping by the Soviet government in 1991, but has hitherto not been seriously used as a commercial route. It is now mainly used by Russian metals giant Norilsk Nickel and energy firms LUKoil, Gazprom and Rosneft.

During the voyage, statistical data will be collected to lay the basis for planning similar shipments in 2011 and to further research information needed to plot new deep-water shipping routes in the Arctic.

The vessels are expected to clear the icy waters of the Northern Sea Route between August 26-29. The Baltika will then continue alone to an undisclosed Chinese port, where it is scheduled to arrive during the first half of September, said WWN.

Success of ‘strategic’ importance

Novatek, which owns the 70,000-tonne cargo of gas condensate on the Baltika, said the success of the shipment “is strategically important and will have a beneficial impact on the Northern regions of the Russian Federation by facilitating the development of new hydrocarbon fields located in the Yamal peninsula and Arctic shelf.”

Rosatom’s high ambitions for icebreaker fleet

The Atomflot nuclear icebreaker port of the Murmansk Shipping Company was passed to Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear state corporation, in August 2008.  

In an October 2008 meeting between Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Putin requested Rosatom develop long term plans for strengthening Russia’s nuclear icebreaker fleet for the purpose of gaining predominance in the Northern Sea route.

Russia plans in coming years to build three to four new generation nuclear powered icebreakers to buttress the aging fleet that Rosatom took under its control from the Murmansk Shipping Company in August.

“We must assess the state of the fleet and determine its development perspectives,” Putin said, adding that “I have in mind, of course, our plans for the further development of the Northern Sea Route”.

According to the transcript of the meeting published on government.ru, Kiriyenko said that Rosatom is currently developing a programme for the fleet’s development, and underscored the need to build new vessels. According to Kiriyenko, the new vessels will go into service by 2015.

Charles Digges