Russia has vast quantities of oil and gas in northern Siberia. The fields beneath the Barents Sea and the Pechora Sea on its south-east fringe contain nearly as much oil as those of the Middle East. Yet exploitation of those resources is only beginning. There are formidable obstacles to contend with: harsh Arctic conditions, fragile ecosystems, enormous distances and instability in Russia.
International oil companies are understandably very interested in Siberia's natural resources. Together with the Russians they are studying ways of exploiting oil and gas fields in the Arctic and overcoming the massive transport problems involved. It seems safe to assume that oil output in Russia's northern regions will increase enormously in the near future. What is still unclear is which way of getting it out will prove most effective and least expensive: overland through a pipeline or in tankers sailing the sea route through the North-East Passage.
The Finns are competing in the "Siberian Rally", where they are applying their special know-how and vessels to developing sea transport. A joint venture called Arctic Shipping Services (ASS) has been set up as a vehicle for cooperation. The Russian majority partner is the Murmansk Shipping Company, whilst Nemarc Oy (owned by Fortum Shipping Company and Kvaerner Masa Yards) holds a 25% stake.
Fortum Oyj (former Neste Oy) is one of the few tanker operators with experience of Arctic ice navigation. It brings in Finland's own oil supplies through the Baltic ice and its vessels have been supplying Greenland for nearly 20 years. In the past few years, two of the company's tankers, the Uikku and the Lunni, have demonstrated their ability to cope with the harshest conditions that the Arctic Ocean can put in their way.
The vessels, both 16,000 dwt and 164 metres long, were originally built for service in the Baltic. To equip them for the much bigger challenge of the North-East Passage, they were refitted by Kvaerner Masa Yards. This included equipping them with Azipod propulsion units, which greatly increased their manoeuvrability and ability to navigate through ice.
The Uikku and the Lunni have been operating in the North-East Passage since 1993 and have completed over a dozen voyages eastwards from Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula and from Archangel and Kantalahti on the White Sea.
The tankers have been taking diesel oil and kerosene to Pevek and Mys Schmidt, i.e. almost all the way to the Bering Strait, to supply military bases, oilfields and mining operations. On the return voyage they have brought condensates from the mouth of the River Ob.
To avoid being damaged by the ice and minimise environmental risks, tankers plying the North-East Passage must have strong double hulls. That makes them 15 - 20 per cent more expensive to build than conventional tankers. So far, there are too few of them to be able to transport northern Russia's oil to world markets. Latvian tankers - built in Finland - with ice-strengthened hulls have also been navigating the North-East Passage in convoys.
The Russian contribution is in the form of ice pilots and nuclear-powered icebreakers to assist the tankers' passage. Five 80,000-hp nuclear-powered icebreakers were built in St. Petersburg and two others in Finland.
One-year solid ice a metre and a half thick is no problem, and a channel can even be ploughed through pack ice reaching all the way to the bottom. Enormous floes that have broken away from sheets of perennial ice are the biggest hazard.
Over a century ago, the Finnish-born explorer N.A.E. Nordenskiöld led the first crew to negotiate the North-East Passage from the Atlantic to the Bering Strait. Already then, he was convinced of the enormous potential of the route, especially for transporting Siberian commodities to the world.
The Finns of today share his views, but the North-East Passage also offers an interesting alternative route for shipping between Europe, Japan and North America. If suitable product flows could be generated, the route would cut about 5,000 sea miles and two weeks off the trip.
Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901)
Mineralogist, geologist, geographer, Arctic explorer. Born in Helsinki in 1832. Studied at the University of Helsinki 1849-55. Incurred the disfavour of the authorities because of his pro-Swedish and Western sympathies. Fled to Sweden in 1858. Appointed professor at the Academy of Science in Stockholm 1858.
Exploration trips: Urals 1853-54; Spitzbergen 1858, 1861, 1868 and 1872; Greenland 1870 and 1883; Kara Sea 1875 and 1876. Negotiated the North-East Passage in 1878-79 in the oak-hulled sealer VEGA (357 grt), which was fitted with a 60-hp auxiliary engine. Several scientists were on board the vessel, which began its voyage in Norway in July 1878, got stuck in the ice in September and spent the next ten months there. The Vega sailed through the Bering Strait in July 1879.
A five-volume report on the scientific results of the voyage was published in 1882-87. Died in Sweden in 1901. Nordenskiöld's valuable map collection is in the library of the University of Helsinki.