Will high temperatures make of Arctic Russian highway for oil tankers?

31 lipca 2018, 11:07
read in 10 min.
Fot.: commons.wikimedia.org

Last week northern Scandinavia and Russia faced heatwave similar to this in southern Spain. In the meantime a LNG tanker sailed out from Sabieta port on Yamal peninsula, heading to East, China. They are first signs of changes which have taken place in Artic and which will have a huge impact on maritime transport as well as oil&gas industry. Russia is actively engaged in the process.

In the new school year one of the technical secondary schools in Nenec Autonomous District (northern Russia) is starting a new specialisation ‘deer keeper-machine operator’. Education curriculum includes, for example, deer group management or passenger/freight transport (by deer, of course). Higher schools in the region offer new faculties or modify existing specialisations. In three years graduates of tourism specialised in the Arctic will be prepared to tell the stories about autochthons or even pretend them, providing tourists with an insight into the crafts like flaying the skin or carving in animal bones.

Russia is getting ready to the Arctic conquest – the North Pole fires the imagination, not only of Russian travel agencies. From several years the region has been a subject of vigorous discussions in the general staff as well as business meeting of energy and transport industries.

To Secure

The Arctic is perceived by Russian policymakers as lever using for raising geopolitical status of the country. Consequently, Kremlin gives high priority to military domination in the region.

The aim of  Arctic Forces, being under the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command, is to ensure security to Russia on its northern frontiers. The observers’ attention is especially paid to Arctic brigades. The first one was created on 31 December 2014 and placed in Alakurtti military base, close to Finland.

It is not an isolated case. Soldiers equipped with winter scooters, skis and mosses may be found not only on the territory of this former Soviet base. Reaching far North (Alexandra Land or Kotelny island) we would see other bases where air defence units are stationed.

Arctic Forces has currently experienced golden age. They are, along with the rocket army, the apple of Putin’s eye. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the propaganda. From reportages, made by public television Zvezda, we may learn about eternally ‘Russian’ North and the state’s civilisational mission.

Although Russianness of the North Pole only brings a smile of pity to the faces of foreigners, for Russian citizens the situation is very different. Shots with atomic icebreakers melting sea ice spread across the horizon, Jamal LNG or other mega-projects and missile launchers spiced up by slogans reminding USSR period may foster a sense of real pride. This has an effect on Putin’s popularity that has recently fallen below 50% and requires an immediate improvement.

To Explore

However, propaganda is not a key aim of developing military capabilities on the Arctic territory. According to various estimates, the continent is a home for about 22% of undiscovered world gas and oil resources. This is why Putin as early as in 2001 (at the beginning of his promising pro-western cadence) laid claim to the Arctic at the UN.

Further actions taken by Kremlin were decisive and consequent. In 2007, 8 years before starting Arctic brigades into operation, Russian bathyscaph planted flag on Arctic Ocean seabed, confirming country’s territorial claims.

Putin’s Arctic policy was continued by Medvedev. He was a president while the Arctic Doctrines were announced (in 2008). In the document Russians officially recognised strategic importance of the Arctic resources for the country.

Their role was then confirmed in later versions by Vladimir Putin. We may read that exploitation of Arctic resources of oil and gas aims at establishing reserves. This seems to be essential in the face of depletion of natural reserves on the continent that is expected shortly after 2020.

Of course, not everybody is wearing rose-tinted spectacles. The ‘shale gas revolution’ in the United States with its sharp increase in resources prices caused lower profitability of Arctic’s exploitation. Gas and oil production in such unfriendly environment  is the most expensive, counting per barrel.

Additional complication is a lack of technology and know-how. Russia’s capabilities do not allow its industry to fully develop in the Arctic. Sanctions imposed after Crimea annexation hurt Kremlin, cutting it off from western technologies. Yet, China was first to offer assistance. Last year headlines of Russian newspapers informed about ‘Chinese breakthrough in the Arctic’. The enthusiasm was generated by entering of Chinese platform Nanhain-8 the Kola Bay which is a really promising region in terms of resources exploitation.

We should not forget about one more issue. The Arctic cake has not been yet distributed among claiming countries. Russia has attempted to been on the front line. Development of military potential may strengthen its negotiating position.

In 2015 Russia deposited at the UN additional documents to its application from 2001 with further arguments supporting its demands. In fact, Kremlin claims a territory of 1,2 mln square km of the Arctic shelf spread over 650 km from the Russian border. Positive settle of the issue would provide new perspectives for oil&gas industry’s development.

To Transport

Taking control over ‘the Arctic cake’ has fundamental importance for Russia, and not only because of resources. Along with increasing temperature in the North and melting icecap, chances of yearlong operation of so called Northern Passage increase as well.

Currently vessels sailing round Northern Russia, which is a significant shortening compared to traditional routes, require icebreakers to pave the way. Additionally, Russians have to face infrastructure gaps, difficulties with navigation, unpredictable weather and primarily lack of search and rescue fleet.

Taking into account all of the above factors influencing high costs of transport via Northern Passage, it is used only when necessary. This problem is also one of the key points included in the Arctic Doctrine with special focus on the fleet and icebreakers. Furthermore, global warming may help Russian plans.

Gradually melting icecap in the North may benefit to Kremlin’s new perspectives. In Russia’s vision the Northern Passage  would be an important sea highway used for freight transport, primarily oil&gas. It could have an effect on development of ports in the north as well as increase of the strategic importance of the country. Exploitation of underwater resources would then ensure status of superpower to Russia and protection of its oligarchic structure.

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