Russia eyes year-round Northern Sea Route that would speed natural gas shipments

Russia expects to soon begin shipping products through the Northern Sea Route all year long, a plan that would speed up its transport of liquefied natural gas to Asia.

Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev said the country plans to utilize the route, which allows passage through the Arctic north of Russia, for year-round transport as soon as next year with the help of naturally thawing ice and icebreaking vessels.

"We are planning to start the transition to year-round navigation in 2022-2023," Trutnev told the Rossiya 24 state television channel on Monday.

The announcement sets a clearer timeline for the long-sought goal of expanding Arctic operations, which the Russians have already been testing out this year.

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In January, a Russian tanker carrying LNG made a round trip via the Northern Sea Route for the first time during the dead of winter, hitting the Chinese port of Jiangsu before returning to Cape Dezhnev in eastern Russia, where nuclear-powered icebreaker the 50 Let Pobedy escorted it back westward toward Sabetta.

Russia transported nearly 18 million metric tons of LNG through the route in 2019, operating only during part of the year, and year-round access would allow it to move that gas more quickly and easily to Asia and Europe without having to negotiate passage through the Suez Canal.

50 Let Pobedy ice breaker
50 Let Pobedy icebreaker Rosatom YouTube screengrab

Nikos Tsafos, an energy analyst with the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said the short-term benefits to Russia of year-round transport are limited by the capacity of its LNG plants.

"It just makes Russia able to access markets more cheaply, it may improve their margins, they make more money and all that," Tsafos said in an interview.

"[But] long-term you can say that, hey, if I can access the market year-round, maybe it makes you more attractive partner," he said.

"Today, if you go to China and you say, 'Hey, China, do you want to buy gas from me?' They're like, 'Well, yeah, you can deliver to me gas only halfway through the year, the other half it comes has to go through the rest of the world.' So, you could become a more attractive partner," Tsafos added.

Northern Sea Route tanker trip
Icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy leads gas tanker Christophe de Margerie through the Arctic Rosatom YouTube screengrab

The Russians have indicated they expect the expanded presence in the Arctic to better their edge, with President Vladimir Putin saying the NSR would be part of China's Maritime Silk Road as a "global and competitive route that connects northeastern, eastern, and southeastern Asia with Europe."

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St. Petersburg Gov. Georgy Poltavchenko has boasted direct ownership of the region.

"Russia's Arctic attracts many who are interested in its resources," Poltavchenko said during an unveiling ceremony for a new icebreaking ship last year. "But the Arctic is ours, and we've proved it."

Russia is already the globe's top net exporter of natural gas, according to the latest numbers from the International Energy Agency.

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