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Casting a Cool Eye on Russia’s Northern Sea Route Ambitions

Russian officials boast that their country’s Northern Sea Route will soon see a significant increase in traffic to export oil, gas and coal. But it’s probably best to temper expectations, says Malte Humpert, the strategic director and founder of the Arctic Institute.

Written by John Thompson, Narine Ohanyan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Russia expands liquefied natural gas capacities in sabetta
The Christophe de Margerie, a gas tanker flying under the Cypriot flag, in the harbour in Sabetta, Russia, March 2017. The vessel is the world’s largest icebreaker. A new fleet of 15 such ships is to be launched in order to transport liquefied natural gas to Asia and Europe.Friedemann Kohler/dpa

Not long ago, Russia touted its Northern Sea Route (NSR) as a potential rival to the Suez Canal. As Arctic sea ice shrinks, the argument went, this northern route would offer a considerably more direct path between Asia and Europe. But the recent fall in oil prices has eroded the fuel savings offered by the sea route, while the technical challenges of shipping through icy waters remain.

Today, Russia still maintains that the sea route has a bright future. But as attendees heard at Russia’s recent International Arctic Forum held in Arkhangelsk, the short-term goal is to turn the route into a channel for domestic cargo and to export the country’s northern deposits of oil, gas and minerals.

Russia expects that exports of liquefied natural gas from its new Sabetta port on the Yamal Peninsula, coal from the Taimyr Peninsula and oil from the Tanalan field will all help boost cargo turnover over the next three years to 40 million metric tons annually. That’s a big jump from 7.5 million tons in 2016. By 2030, meanwhile, shipping volumes on the route are projected to reach 80 million tons annually. And Russia’s transport minister, Maxim Sokolov, told the Arkhangelsk conference that 2013’s peak volume for transit cargo, 1.3 million tons, is also just “a drop in the sea” of what’s possible.

Not everyone views these targets as realistic. Arctic Deeply spoke to Malte Humpert, the strategic director and founder of the Arctic Institute, about the Northern Sea Route’s infrastructure and prospects.

Arctic Deeply: Russia predicts a significant increase in shipping volumes along the Northern Sea Route by 2030. How realistic are these estimates in your opinion? What are some of the big challenges that Russia faces in meeting these goals?

Malte Humpert: With respect to transit traffic, the highest annual figure in the past two decades was 1.3 million tons and this past year was at just 200,000 tons. That number is unlikely to grow significantly over the next decade.

Destination traffic, on the other hand, has been and is likely to continue growing. The bulk of the increase in volume has come from exports of Arctic crude oil and will also include liquefied natural gas (LNG) once Yamal LNG comes online in full capacity.

In general, Russian estimates and forecasts have significantly exaggerated future potential. Figures of 30 million tons were already included in transportation plans a couple of years ago, which never materialized.

Yes, cargo volume will go up, but 40 million tons by 2019 is not realistic. Similarly, 80 million tons by 2030 seems very optimistic. Again, the bulk of this cargo volume will come from oil and gas developments, which tend to be delayed and very dependent on global markets – as prices go down, development slows down.

Arctic Deeply: Do you have a sense of the state of infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route and how much work has to be done in upgrades? Given its current economic challenges, how successful do you expect Russia to be in improving that infrastructure?

Humpert: For destination shipping, the primary infrastructure needed are offshore berths to load oil tankers or gas liquefaction terminals to turn natural gas into LNG. The bulk of the required infrastructure for the Prirazlomnaya oil platform and Yamal LNG has been built. If capacity were to be increased in the future, additional infrastructure would be needed.

In terms of transit traffic, Russia has been active in (re)opening a number of search-and-rescue (SAR) centers along the route. Out of 13 planned centers, about half have been completed. Originally all 13 were expected to be open by 2017; now Russia is saying they’ll be completed by 2020.

Additionally, there are questions about icebreaker capacity. The existing fleet of nuclear icebreakers is aging and replacements have just begun construction, again behind schedule. Ice-class LNG carriers may be able to operate without escorts for part of the year, but may require icebreaker support at other times, also depending on how ice conditions change from winter to winter.

Russia does have vast amounts of experience operating in the Arctic, more so than any other Arctic state. The challenge will be replacing or upgrading existing infrastructure (e.g. icebreakers) and constructing new facilities (e.g. SAR centers, oil/LNG terminals) to ramp up cargo volumes as Russia claims it will.

Arctic Deeply: How are Western sanctions impacting the updating of the Russian icebreaker fleet?

Humpert: Western sanctions do not affect the construction of new icebreakers, to my knowledge. Russia has more than five decades of experience when it comes to building the most capable icebreakers. Unlike offshore oil production in ice-infested waters, where it relied on Exxon’s help and financing, it does not require Western technology or know-how to build new icebreakers. The larger question will be financing, as nuclear icebreakers don’t come cheap and are expensive to operate and maintain. The main question will be the political willingness to adequately fund these projects to move forward on schedule.

Arctic Deeply: The Northern Sea Route has in the past been touted as possibly creating a ‘Silk Road’ of the sea. What are the expectations of Asian countries from the sea route?

Humpert: In one word: none.

The idea of using the NSR as a shipping route is primarily studied in Asian think-tanks or as part of “what if” scenarios (e.g. what if the Straits of Malacca were to close), but it is not part of any serious near- or medium-term (next 25 years) economic or political calculation.

The NSR will not become a major shipping route. Not today and not in 2030 – or even 2050. As long as there is winter ice, which makes the Arctic Ocean unnavigable for part of the year, it will not be suitable for regular transit traffic.

There may be occasional voyages, as we have seen over the past few years, delivering timber from Finland to Canada, or Norwegian fish and LNG to Japan or iron ore to China. But the NSR will not see containerized cargo on which global trade operates. There are a host of reasons for that, the biggest ones being lack of schedule reliability and seasonability of the route, lack of ports of call and increased insurance premiums on the NSR over Suez.

As a comparison: the Suez Canal sees around 18,000 transits per year, the Panama Canal around 15,000, the Straits of Malacca around 65,000.

In the past five years taken together, the NSR saw around 200 transits, with most vessels being tiny compared to the giant container ships and bulk carriers passing through the world’s shipping hubs.

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