Sabetta airport closes as coronavirus spreads across Russia’s Arctic oil and gas fields

The spread of COVID-19 in Arctic oil and gas installations poses a major challenge for companies such as Novatek.

By Atle Staalesen, The Independent Barents Observer - April 28, 2020
People enter the terminal at the Sabetta International Airport owned and operated by Yamal LNG, Russia’s second liquefied natural gas plant, in Arctic port of Sabetta, Yamalo-Nenets district, Russia March 30, 2017. (Olesya Astakhova / Reuters)

Regional health authorities have closed down the airport at Sabetta, a key Russian Arctic hub and the natural gas company Novatek’s main lifeline to its Yamal LNG project, as COVID-19 infections in northern Russia grow.

Commuter workers at Russian’s remote oil and gas fields appear to have brought infection to outposts in the region. The closure of the airport in Sabetta, on the Yamal Peninsula, comes as more than 140 people now are registered as carriers of the coronavirus in the remote industrial town.

According to TASS, a total of 22 individuals have been sent to hospitals in regional capital Salekhard and oil town Novy Urengoy. The remaining 121 workers have been isolated in Sabetta, the news agency reports.

Flight Radar data obtained by the Barents Observer on Saturday showed that an aircraft from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations was en route to Sabetta. The aircraft, an Ilyushin-76 transport plane, is similar to the flights that on April 12 brought a mobile hospital to Novatek’s Belokamenka plant outside Murmansk.

In Belokamenka, about 900 workers are now registered as infected.

Novatek complains

It was the regional health authorities in the Yamal-Nenets region that decided to close the airport, Kommersant reports. The decision was soon protested by Novatek. Subsidiary company Yamal LNG argued that regional health authorities are not entitled to close an airport and has addressed “competent authorities” with the complaint, RBC reports.

The situation poses a serious challenge for Novatek, which operates the Yamal LNG and is moving ahead with developments at the Arctic LNG 2 in nearby Gydan Peninsula.

More than 30,000 workers are engaged in company operations in Sabetta. Several more thousands are believed to be involved in construction in Gydan.

The virus outbreak in Novatek’s key project sites could hamper progress in the company’s major Arctic plans. The new plant in Belokamenka is to build LNG production platforms for the Arctic LNG 2 project. Production is due to start in 2023 and by 2024 many million tons of liquified natural gas is to be shipped to consumers in Europe and Asia.

The Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2 are projects of key importance for Russia’s objective to ship more than 80 million tons on the Northern Sea Route by year 2024.

Many companies affected

Novatek is not the only company seriously hit by the coronavirus. According to Yamal-Nenets Governor Dmitry Artyukhov, another two industrial sites in the natural gas-rich region are affected by virus outbreaks.

Arktyukhov in a social media post on April 27 said that the regional spreading of the virus is still very limited. “We have about 60 [petroleum] fields in operation and more than 100,000 commuter workers, [and] the registered cases affect only three fields,” he said.

For weeks, speculations have swirled about similar virus outbreaks in several other key natural gas fields, among them Gazprom’s Bovanenkovo field. In late March, the company isolated a group of workers on suspicion of infection, but those people were later declared healthy, company subsidiary Gazprom Nadym Dobycha informed.

Like other companies, Gazprom has introduced special procedures connected with the commuter shifts in the far northern projects. Workers now have to spend at least 14 days in isolation before they are allowed to work on sites.

On the April 28, it became known that five patients from Lukoil’s Varandey field in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug had been taken to hospital in Naryan-Mar, the region capital, for intensive care.

Another 23 people are undergoing treatment at the Varandey field, regional authorities inform.

The Nenets Autonomous Okrug was long the Russian region with the least number of COVID-19 cases. But that changed on April 28 when the number spiked from one to 29.