A GAS tanker has powered its way across the top of the world and is set to enter Japanese waters after a west-to-east voyage through the Arctic ice lasting 25 days.
It is a hugely symbolic moment: the melting of the ice caps has brought tantalisingly close the dream of 16th-century explorers to use the Northeast sea route all year round to link Europe to the riches of China and India.
In the case of the Ob River vessel, its mission was less romantic: to deliver 134,000 cubic metres of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from a terminal in northern Norway to Japan and make a healthy profit. The effects of global warming have combined with the rapid US exploitation of shale gas and Japan’s anxieties about nuclear energy to make a trip through the ice floes pay.
The US is no longer importing as much LNG, but Japan is hungry for it. “Gas is now moving east, not west,” said Gunnar Sander, of the Norwegian Polar Institute. If the journey can be shortened, the Northeast Passage – historically all-but-unpassable – becomes a real alternative to shipping goods through the Suez Canal.
“In the Far East there is a huge demand for energy and a lot of infrastructure is based on gas,” said Tony Lauritzen, of Dynagas, which operates the Ob River.
“By cutting the usual distance by 40 per cent, we have saved 40 per cent in fuel costs,” he said.
The Ob River, chartered by Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, was accompanied by a Russian icebreaker. Even when the Arctic thawing accelerates, that will probably still be a necessity, said Lauritzen, because the icebreakers double as escort ships.
“The cost of icebreakers has to be balanced against the extra time spent going through Suez, the transit charges and the risk of piracy,” Lauritzen said.
China is alert to the potential of the Arctic route and has sent an icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, to Iceland and back to Shanghai to gather data. It is looking to invest in Iceland and has been making overtures to Greenland.
Fast seabound delivery of Chinese goods to the US and Europe would make its exports even more competitive. Diplomats say that China and probably India will apply for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council in May. The Arctic Council comprises Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Denmark (which represents Greenland), Iceland, Finland and Sweden.
The opening of the Arctic is increasing political tension in the region. Russia is viewed as the most assertive of the Arctic powers, not only on transit routes but also on seabed resources. Having planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed, it has also sent a submarine to gather geological samples to prove that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges are part of Russia’s continental shelf. There are moves to declare the waters the “Sea of Russia”.
Norway has denied trying to foster separatist sentiment among the native peoples of the Russian Far North and has expressed concern about the trial of a Norwegian-backed Russian anthropologist who has been trying to revive the culture of the Pomor minority. The Pomors, originally Norwegian traders and trappers, were among the first to explore the northeastern sea route. – Roger Boyes