Transport of LNG Modules to Russia Continues, Calling Effectiveness of EU Sanctions Into Question

Russia’s natural gas company Novatek continues to receive prefabricated modules from China for its Arctic LNG 2 project. While EU sanctions seemingly prohibit their transport a Dutch shipping company continues to aid in their delivery.

By Malte Humpert, High North News - September 13, 2023
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Article by High North News

Audax transporting Novatek’s LNG modules across the Arctic. (Source: Red Box Energy Services)

A year and a half into the Western sanctions regime against Russia it is becoming clear that initial expectations regarding their impact on the country’s Arctic LNG 2 project were exaggerated.

In contrast to widespread reporting throughout 2022 that companies would no longer transport key prefabricated modules for Novatek’s Arctic LNG 2 from China to Russia, their deliveries continue.

Dutch Red Box Group, owner and operator of two ice-capable heavy lift carriers, Audax and Pugnax, has completed several shipments during 2022 and 2023, a HNN analysis of shipping records shows.

Pugnax loaded modules at a construction yard north of Shanghai two weeks ago and entered the Northern Sea Route (NSR) with destination of Novatek’s Belokamenka yard last week. Meanwhile, Audax completed a recent delivery and is returning to Asia via the NSR.

audax pugnax route.
Route of Pugnax and Audax sailing between China and the Russian construction yard at Belokamenka. (Source: MarineTraffic)

Prohibits supply of LNG technology

The EU’s 5th sanction package passed in April 2022 sets forth broad prohibitions for the transfer of technology for liquefaction of natural gas (LNG), including the “supply, transfer, or export, directly or indirectly, goods and technologies suited for use in the […] liquefaction of natural gas.”

When sanctions took effect experts highlighted how Russia relied on a fleet of Western heavy-lift carriers to transport its large prefabricated modules from yards across China to the construction yard near Murmansk.

As a result of the sanctions package, industry reporting throughout 2022 indicated that sanctions would impact transport charters for modules as “Western heavy-lift shipping companies start[ed] to terminate contracts to transport modules.”

In-depth studies on the impact of sanctions on Russia’s Arctic energy projects similarly stated that “contracted shipping services by Western countries [would] stop for future projects.”

5th package sanctions
Excerpt from the EU’s 5th sanction package from April 2022. (Source: EU)

EU companies remain involved

According to Red Box Energy Services’ website, owner and operator of the two vessels, the company is headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands, although it also maintains offices in Singapore.

“The Red Box Energy Services’ website explicitly mentions the company is headquartered in Rotterdam… as such, the company is legally European and thus could be easily targeted by EU sanctions,” confirms Frédéric Lasserre, professor of political geography and geo-economics at Laval University whose research focuses on strategic issues of water management and law of the sea issues.

Neither Rex Box nor the Dutch government responded to inquiries how a Netherlands-based company may continue transporting LNG modules under the existing sanctions regime.

Shipping records show that Protection & Indemnity (P&I) insurance for the two vessels is provided by The Ship owners’ Mutual P&I Association (Luxembourg), a mutual insurance association, further highlighting how European companies continue to, at least indirectly, provide services which aid in the further development of Russian LNG resources.

LNG tankers carrrying Russia gas also received services and exchanged crews in Norwegian waters earlier this year.

redbox address.
Information on Audax and Pugnax and Red Box’s company address. (Source: Red Box Energy Services’ website)

Possible loopholes in the sanctions

Red Box may be using its own interpretation of the sanctions, which does not explicitly talk about the ‘transport’ of LNG technology.

“The sanctions [could] merely apply to the producer/reseller of the technology and do not target the transportation service. It could appear that this is Red Box’s interpretation,” elaborates Lasserrre.

The EU may also have elected to not enforce this aspect of sanctions having kept it sufficiently vague.

“One reason for that could be that the EU never wanted to halt Russian gas production. We should recall after all that it was Moscow, not the EU, that turned the taps off for pipeline gas from Russia to the EU, triggering a frenzy of LNG purchases notably from Russia, even more so from Norway, Qatar and the US. Talks of enacting a Russian LNG import ban in Spring 2023 never materialized,” concludes Lasserre.

annotated pugnax satellite image.
Satellite image showing the loading of LNG modules onto Pugnax at a shipyard north of Shanghai between August 13 and August 20. (Source: Planet.com)

Red Box Energy Services isn’t the only Western company transporting modules prior to the war, but it is the only one left offering its services to aid in the completion of Arctic LNG 2.

In addition to Red Box, Norwegian GPO Heavylift also provided shipping services to Novatek in the past. Its semi-submersible GPO Grace, one of the most advanced in the world, delivered a 50,000 tons module across the Arctic in 2021.

In contrast to the Dutch operator, the company appears to not have transported modules from China for Novatek since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

As with other aspects of the development of Arctic LNG 2, Russia relies on its expanding energy partnership with China. A Chinese-owned heavy lift carrier, Fan Zhou 10, is sailing approximately a week ahead of Pugnax also carrying modules bound for the yard near Murmansk.