Arctic thaw boosts bottom line for Russian energy firm
The polar ice cap is melting, and if executives at the Russian energy company Novatek feel guilty about profiting from that, they do not let it be known in public.
From this windswept shore of the Yurkharovskoye gas field in the Arctic Ocean, where Novatek owns enormous natural gas deposits, a stretch of thousands of kilometres of ice-free water leads to China. The company intends to ship the gas directly there.
"If we don't sell them the fuel, somebody else will," said Novatek spokesman Mikhail Lozovoi.
Novatek, in partnership with the French energy company Total and the China National Petroleum Corp, is building a US$20 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the central Arctic coast of Russia.
It is one of the first major energy projects to take advantage of the summer thawing of the Arctic caused by global warming.
The plant, called Yamal LNG, would send gas to Asia along the sea lanes known as the Northeast Passage, which opened for regular international shipping only four years ago.
"It's a reality of what is available today, and commercially it is a route that cuts cost," said Emily Stromquist, a global energy analyst at the Eurasia Group.
Because of easing ice conditions and new hull designs, the tankers will not even require nuclear-powered icebreakers to lead the way except through the most northerly straits.
Novatek's alternative was extending the natural gas pipeline that goes to Europe over hundreds of kilometres of tundra, at great cost.
While shipping the gas from the field on the Yamal Peninsula, one of the long, misshapen fingers of land that extend north of the Urals in Russia, remains expensive, it is relatively cheap to drill and produce from these rich fields, making the overall project competitive.
In addition to making it easier to ship to Asia, the receding ice cap has opened more of the sea floor to exploration. This has upended the traditional business model of using pipelines to Europe. Thawing has proceeded more slowly in the Arctic above Alaska, Canada and Greenland, but one day what is happening in Russia could happen there.
Still, the Arctic waters are particularly perilous for drilling because of the extreme cold. Tongues of ice that descend from the polar cap for hundreds of miles obstruct shipping and threaten rigs. After a rig ran aground last year, Shell cancelled drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.
This is not the first Arctic venture to benefit from newly cleared sea lanes. The decision to open the Arctic Ocean to drilling passed Russia's Parliament in 2008 as an amendment to a law on subsoil resources.
Exxon and Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, are already in a joint venture to drill in the Kara Sea, and last month they agreed to expand to seven new exploration blocks in the Arctic. Fourteen oil wells are currently planned.
With these ventures, Exxon has placed itself in the vanguard of oil companies exploring commercial opportunities in the newly ice-free waters.
Norway is also drilling deep in Arctic waters, but has less territory to explore. Tschudi, a Norwegian shipping company, has bought an idled iron ore mine in the north of Norway to ship ore to China via the northern route.