29 August 2017

LNG Tanker Voyage May Open Northern Ocean Freight Route for Arctic Vessels  

Trip Without Icebreakers Raises Concerns with Environmentalists

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Shipping News Feature RUSSIA – ARCTIC – NORWAY – SOUTH KOREA – We have written many times with regard to the many attempts to sail the Northern Route transiting between Europe and Asia along the edge of the Arctic Ocean itself, something the Russians have become quite proficient at using their fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers. As global warming extends the ice free season in the Northern hemisphere, more attempts have been made in order to make the journey feasible for a route which would improve both cost and time taken for tankers and merchant vessels ferrying freight between the continents.

This month saw the first ever transit involving a gas carrier, a Russian LNG ship which has made the passage without the aid of icebreakers, taking apparently just six and a half days to make the passage in a voyage between Norway and South Korea that only took 19 days overall. The vessel, the Christophe de Margerie is part of the Sovcomflot fleet, constructed appropriately by the Daewoo Shipbuilding Marine Engineering yards in South Korea and sailing under a Cypriot flag. The 80,000 dwt tanker is the largest vessel ever to be granted Russian ARC7 certification meaning it can safely pass through an ice shelf up to 1.7 metres thick (and effectively 2.1 metres) .

This year the floes encountered were little more than one metre thick and the success of the voyage is likely to start a building programme of similarly designed vessels with reinforced hulls to enable passage via the north of Russia all year round. Sovcomflot says it is aiming for up to 15 of the ships over the next few years which could reduce the normal time, and therefore costs, by up to a third when compared to shipping via the Suez Canal. Currently vessel owners need the protective support of those Russian icebreakers, a financial factor which, when added to higher insurance premiums, risks and potential problems greatly reduces the appeal of taking a chance.

On August 17, the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy reached the North Pole just 79 hours after leaving Murmansk, a new record for the transit, and the opening up of the Arctic Seas is naturally something proving of great concern to environmentalists. The thought of any vessel foundering in the pristine waters is frightening enough but the word tanker, gas or otherwise, when added to the normal pollutants a merchant vessel leaves in its wake, sends shivers down the spines of all concerned, especially with what are seen as rapidly changing conditions in the north.

Earlier this year we saw the introduction of the IMO’s Polar Code as the steady decline of sea ice measured over several decades continues to worry scientists, with the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), which issues daily bulletins on the extent of the ice, giving figures which show varying conditions but a consistent decline over time. Concerns have been raised by such as John Maggs, Senior Policy Adviser at Seas at Risk, an outfit funded by the EU and based in Brussels. Commenting on news of the Christophe de Margerie voyage, he said:

"We're concerned that this is a commercial opportunity that has only opened up because of global warming, and we're especially concerned that having taken advantage of the thinning of the ice, shipping operations are now expanding in that part of the world. It is not like sailing in open water, even if you have an ice classed ship, the risks are dramatically increased.

"The environmental risks are enormous. You are taking industrial-sized installations and moving them through a pristine Arctic environment, so it's going to have an impact - and what are we getting in return, slightly shorter journey times? A 30% gain is not much of a gain to me."

Photo: Courtesy Sovcomflot.

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