Russia’s Arctic LNG tanker completes Arctic passage without aid of icebreakers

By Russell Goldman, The New York Times - August 25, 2017

A Russian-owned tanker, built to traverse the frozen waters of the Arctic, completed a journey in record time from Europe to Asia this month, auguring the future of shipping as global warming melts sea ice.

The Christophe de Margerie, a 984-foot tanker built specifically for the journey, became the first ship to complete the Northern Sea Route without the aid of specialized ice-breaking vessels, the ship’s owner, Sovcomflot, said in a statement.

A new Russian Arctic LNG tanker Christophe de Margerie is seen moored during its naming ceremony in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 3, 2017. REUTERS/Olga Maltseva/Pool
The Russian Arctic LNG tanker Christophe de Margerie is seen moored during its naming ceremony in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 3, 2017. (Olga Maltseva / Reuters / Pool)

The journey was the culmination of a centuries-old navigational dream and of a decadelong plan by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose government has indicated it plans to take political and economic advantage of changes to the Arctic’s climate.

“This is a big event in the opening up of the Arctic,” Putin said of the tanker’s maiden voyage this year.

The ship, transporting liquefied natural gas, completed the trip from Norway to South Korea on Thursday of last week in just 19 days, 30 percent faster than the regular route through the Suez Canal, the company said.

[A new era of shipping traffic on the Northern Sea Route]

Sailors have for centuries sought a navigable Northwest Passage: a shorter, faster route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that transits the Arctic. Historically, thick ice made the journey impossible. In the last century, specialized ice-breaking vessels made the trip plausible, but prohibitively expensive, and then only during the summer, when the ice was thinnest.

But rapid changes to the climate have significantly altered the region’s ice, and Sovcomflot said in a statement that it believed the ship could make the journey “year-round in the difficult ice conditions.”

The ship is named for Christophe de Margerie, the former chief executive of the French energy company Total who was killed in a plane crash in Moscow in 2014. The first of a planned fleet of 15 similar tankers, the ship has a unique reinforced steel hull that allows it to break ice up to 4 feet thick.

Fewer than 500 ships have made the journey since the route was first completed in 1906, but Sovcomflot said it expected the journey to become routine.

For now, the route still remains expensive, made costlier by high insurance rates and safety considerations. A report last year by the Copenhagen Business School concluded that trans-Arctic shipping would not become economically viable before 2040.

As experts anticipate further melting across the Arctic, several countries have sought ways to exploit the thawing — laying cables and drilling for oil, natural gas and other resources.

That increase in access has brought with it an increase in political tensions. Canada contends the waters of the Arctic Archipelago are its internal waters, a claim the United States and other nations contest.

Greenland, an autonomous region of Denmark, maintains it has the sole rights to an immense ridge it considers part of its continental shelf that extends for hundreds of miles beneath the Arctic Ocean.

In 2007, a Russian submarine planted a Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole.