Ice Age: The Meltdown
Voyages through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) are no longer a surprise. Russia has been trying to develop this route for many years now, making it one of its strategic priorities in the 2000s. Reports of tanker shipments date back over a decade, with the 1st voyage successfully completed back in 2010 and volumes shipped (all commodities) gradually edging up over the past decade.
The navigation season along the route is fairly short, typically beginning in early summer and ending mid/late autumn. Tonnage passing through the NSR is still accompanied by a nuclear ice breaker on some or all parts of the voyage, depending on ice class conditions.
The rationale behind efforts to develop the NSR is clear. Distance wise, the NSR is about 30% shorter for Russian Baltic shipments delivering into Northern China and about 45% for shorter for shipments from Murmansk.
The importance of developing the NSR is even more critical now, following the introduction of the EU ban on imports of Russian crude in December last year. With this in mind, the Russian government is targeting year-round sailing, potentially as early as 2025; however, navigation along the route remains challenging, at least at certain times.
Back in November 2021, 18 vessels got stuck in various remote points along the NSR route when water froze quicker than expected. This year, two Aframaxes, the NS Arctic and the Primorsky Prospect, shipped Urals from the Baltic into Northern China along the NSR, with the voyage taking about 46-47 days, slightly longer that what would have taken these vessels to travel via Suez Canal at 12.5 knots speed. AIS tracking shows that both tankers slowed down notably at some stages between the Kara Sea and the Chukchi Sea, at times going as slow as 3-4 knots, probably due to challenging ice conditions.
In this instance, long voyage days certainly reduce the economics of the NSR passage, which include ice breaker costs, although lower bunker expenditure due to the shorter distance travelled via the NSR and no need to pay Suez Canal dues helps to balance that out.
Also, with the NS Arctic and the Primorsky Prospect completing the Arctic voyage relatively early during the navigational season, it is likely that vessels that are attempting the voyage now will face better conditions and hence achieve higher speeds.
Furthermore, regardless of ice conditions, the economics of shipping crude from Murmansk to China are certainly more attractive. Last year, the Panamax Vasily Dinkov delivered crude from Umba FPSO to Rizhao in 28 days, this year the Aframax SCF Baltica has done a broadly similar voyage in 31 days, despite slowing down notably at certain parts along the route. This compares to an about 45-day voyage via Suez Canal at 12.5 knots. Absolute seaborne crude exports from Murmansk are fairly small, at circa 325kbd so far this year but almost half of it (150 kbd) has been shipped to China (incl. shipments via the Myanmar pipeline).
Meanwhile, Baltic shipments to China have averaged circa 230 kbd. Combined, this is not an insignificant volume, considering distances and time involved to deliver into China via the Suez Canal. For now, crude volumes shipped via the NSR are very modest in comparison to voyages via Suez, whilst the economics for Baltic shipments remain questionable. However, this trade will undoubtedly continue to grow going forward due to global warming, gradually chipping away at Russian crude tanker tonne mile demand...