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Gazprom Tanker Breaks Through to the Pacific

Gazprom Ob River

Gazprom’s tanker Ob River (Gazprom)

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Barcelona) — In the midst of Japan’s energy woes, prompted by the Fukushima disaster and reinforced by the uncertainty arising from the tensions in East Asia, the arrival for the first time of a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) tanker through the Arctic Ocean and into the Pacific Ocean offers hope and the chance to diversify away from the sea lanes Tokyo currently relies upon for the bulk of its energy imports. This is possible thanks to the gradual melting of Arctic Ocean ice, technological developments, and Russia’s policy of energy export diversification.

Following a no-load voyage to test navigation systems and the route’s feasibility in October, this time the Ob River (able to transport up to 63,000 metric tons of LNG; that is, 3.1 billion cubic feet of gas equivalent) made it to Japan through the Northern Sea Route for real. On December 5, loaded with LNG and escorted by Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers 50 Years of VictoryRussia, and Vaygach, the ship broke through into the Pacific.

The voyage, announced by gas giant Gazprom, took the ship through the Barents and the Kara Seas, followed by the passage of the Vilkitsky and Bering Straits. The ship originally departed on November 7 from Hammerfest, home to a liquefaction plant in northern Norway, and ultimately docked at an LNG terminal at Kitakyushu, one of the main ports in Western Japan.

Although the number of vessels following this route is increasing, and exceeded thirty this summer, it is still relatively small.

In its press release, Gazprom said that, “The round trip of the vessel from Asia to Europe and back has confirmed the technical and commercial viability of [the Northern Sea Route] for the global LNG business.”

The Russian company explained that the Ob River had found very little ice in the first days of the trip, and through the Barents and Kara Seas as well. This changed later, however, in the leg from the Vilkitsky Strait to the Bering Strait, where ice was up to thirty centimeters thick. But this obstacle presented little challenge to the nuclear-powered icebreakers.

Moscow would like to see a greater proportion of its oil and natural gas sold in the Asia-Pacific region. For example, the Russian government also has plans for the construction of a trans-Korean natural gas pipeline, and Japan and Russia are cooperating to build an LNG plant near Vladivostok. This latter project was discussed at a November 26 meeting between Gazprom Chairman Alexey Miller and Japanese Ambassador to Russia Chikahito Harada.

Increasingly the energy connections between the Russian mainland and the Japanese islands are opening up.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona