The Northern Sea Route expects active maritime traffic

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) opened by the Soviet Union in 1931 and successfully operating for already three quarters of a century, until recently has been a real Terra Incognita for the rest part of the world. However, in 1991 Russia showed its good will and approved “The rules of navigation on the Northern Sea Route lines” on the basis non-discriminatory for ships of all countries. These rules opened up the MSR for international navigation. Moreover, Russia published “The guide on through navigation along the Northern Sea Route” that was translated into English three years later, and then distributed almost all over the world.

The interest in this shipping way running through the Russian Arctic region ice is growing from year to year. In 1998, the NSR obtained the status of the independent Euro-Asian transportation corridor. The problems of its utilization for international navigation were discussed at the Second annual conference “Arctic Shipping” held in St. Petersburg recently.

Forthcoming development of oil-and-gas resources on the Russian continental shelf and considerable expansion of freight traffic along the NSR impose the necessity of revising the Northern Sea Route operation concept.

“The role of the state in formation of the Arctic marine transport system consists in creating favorable conditions for reliable operation of the NSR line, as well as in preparation of all required transport infrastructure,” Dmitry Dmitrienko, Deputy Chief of the Federal Agency for Marine and River Transport of the RF Ministry of Transport, Candidate of Economics, stated in his report at the conference.

Nowadays, operational management of all maritime operations on the NSR is actually carried out by the commercial shipping companies – Murmansk Shipping Company JSC and Far East Shipping Company JSC, which received state-owned icebreakers for temporary trust management. Herewith, the governmental share in the assets of these joint - stock companies does not exceed 25%.

The President and the national Government assigned a task to establish an independent company that can manage the federal property in order to ensure navigation on the NSR lines. The NSR development concept worked out by the Russian Ministry of Transport substantiates creation of a state unitary enterprise managing the NSR, which should comprise the icebreaker fleet and other facilities providing navigation in the Arctic.

The need in marine export of hydrocarbons using the Arctic marine transport system is evaluated in the volume of 40-50 mln tons annually by 2020; however, according to the optimistic forecasts this volume may increase twice. Reliability and effectiveness of oil-and-gas exports from the Arctic fields are confirmed by the experimental voyage of the Finnish tanker “Uykku” and the voyage of the Russian tanker “Vilyuisk” that delivered nearly 20 ths tons of gas condensate from the Gulf of Ob to Rotterdam port. The voyages were made in early spring in 1998 within the ARCDEV International project implemented with the participation of the European Commission. The tankers were piloted by Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers in abnormally severe ice conditions. It was confirmed that marine export of hydrocarbons reduces capital expenditures one and a half times compared to pipeline export; provides free choice of foreign consumers of the Russian oil and gas; mitigates risks of oil pollution.

Taking into account growing demands for energy resources on the European and American markets, Russian oil-and-gas companies are planning to implement the following projects within the period till 2020:

  • in 2007-2008, Gazprom Company installs the first offshore ice-resistant fixed platform in the Arctic on Prirazlomoye field in the south-eastern part of the Barents Sea; oil loading will be carried out by two tankers with 70 ths tons deadweight, ice class LU6; the platform will be maintained by two support icebreakers;
  • iLUKOIL Company increases capacities of the existing terminal Varandey on Timano-Pechora field up to 13 mln tons annually by shifting it from the depth of 12 m to the depth of 17 m; this transport system will engage 3 tankers with 70 ths tons deadweight, ice class LU6;
  • ioil and gas condensate transportation from the Gulfs of Ob and Tazov will be further developed in the volume of 1.5-2 mln tons annually by means of tankers with 20 ths tons deadweight, ice class LU6;
  • ioil export from Arkhangelsk and Vitino ports in the volume of 20 mln tons annually will be carried out by tankers with 20-30 ths tons deadweight, ice class LU5;
  • in a distant perspective, Transneft Company is planning to construct a pipeline from the West Siberian oil fields to the Cheshskaya Bay, as well as to set up Indigo export terminal there for tankers having up to 250 ths tons deadweight; the anticipated volume of oil export amounts to 25 mln tons annually.

Operation of ice-class tankers will be more effective from the economic point of view in all these projects when they are used as shuttles. Oil will be delivered by tankers to the offshore transshipping terminal at Murmansk port, then pumped to an accumulating tanker, and from the latter to ocean-going tankers with 150-300 ths tons deadweight; after that it will be exported to European and US ports.

The volume of through shipments by the NSR will not exceed 0.5 mln tons. Going down of foreign shippers’ interest in through traffic using the NSR can be explained by the fact that all international shipping lines work according to the line schedule, the “just-in-time” and “house-house” scheme. Such mode of shipments by the NSR can be provided at summer navigation only.

However, the RF Government and the Ministry of Transport takes measures aimed to develop international commercial maritime traffic along the NSR. In 1993 –1998, the International research program “Northern Sea Route” (INSROP) was executed. Foreign experts evaluated transshipments by the NSR in the volumes: from the west - up to 5 mln tons, and from the east– 3 mln tons. Under the auspices of this program a commercial voyage of the Russian transport ship “Kandalaksha” was made on the route Yokohama (Japan) – Northern Sea Route – Kirkenes (Norway) at the summer navigation in 1995. It proved that foreign shippers using the NSR at the summer navigation can expedite cargo delivery by 15 days compared to the south route via the Suez Canal and can achieve cost cutting up to 500 ths US dollars in each voyage. The Russian operator of the icebreaker fleet will receive a profit of minimum 100 ths US dollars per piloting each foreign ship.

Renewal of the Arctic fleet will be required in order to provide through shipments via the NSR all-the-year-round and according to the line schedule. We will have to build new-generation icebreakers, both nuclear-powered and diesel, by 2020 to ensure cargo traffic. Russia has already allocated required resources for designing new-generation icebreakers. By 2010, the program “Modernization of the Russian transport for the period of 2002-2010” provides construction of 15 ice-class transport ships.

For most of foreign companies, which in the short run will start working in the Russian Arctic region, navigation in ice conditions will be a new experience; and this may lead to a number of problems. These were explained at the conference by Nikolay Babich, deputy Director of the Department – Chief of the Maritime Operations Staff of the Murmansk Shipping Company:

– Starting form 1991, all ships are approved for navigation via the NSR, irrespective of their flags and identities, but with one condition – they should conform to the ice class. Now this situation imposes enormous responsibilities on us. In fact, from the point of ice-class determination not everything proceeds smoothly since approaches of classification societies during determination of safety criteria for navigation in ice conditions are based mainly on assessments of the ship hull strength. However, it is not sufficient. When exposed to extreme aspects during Arctic navigation the only way to ensure maximum safety is to provide the ship with capabilities of overcoming ice resistance independently during its active ice navigation and making up to 3-4 knots – it means that the ship power loading comes to the first place.

One more aspect. Since the Suez and Panama Canals have reached their capacity limits, and international terrorism threats are so severe that intercontinental ocean routes can be blocked up, the Northern Sea Route becomes a high-priority route in the international transport communications. We have to create a navigation safety system in the Arctic by building an appropriate fleet and an icebreaker fleet capable of ensuring its safe navigation. It is our all-round task.

Recorded by Olga Loskutova

Go to Index of # 2(16) 2006


# 2(16), 2006
Ocean and shelf exploration