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Russian LNG tanker takes on Arctic's Northern Sea Route

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

According to Norway's Barents Observer, Russia's state-owned gas company Gazprom sent a loaded LNG tanker, Ob River, to Japan via the Arctic's Northern Sea Route (NSR) this week.

The tanker, which has the capacity to carry 3.1 billion cubic feet of gas equivalent, or about 63,000 metric tons of LNG, set sail on Thursday from Statoil's liquefaction plant at Hammerfest, Norway, on the shores of the Barents Sea. This traverse will be the first time a tanker carrying LNG has attempted the NSR.

Tankers like Ob River typically have to travel down through the Atlantic Ocean, through the Mediterranean, across the Indian Ocean and up to Asia. The standard trip takes tankers an extra three weeks when compared to the NSR. (To see a map comparing the two routes, click here.)

The NSR is usually impassible to tankers, save for four months during the warmest parts of the year. But, with the apparent warming of the Arctic, sea ice has been thinner and less prevalent, leaving the route open for longer periods during the year.

The Ob River's voyage is, in part, to test whether or not transportation from the Hammerfest plant, the northernmost in the world, through the route and down to Asia would be realistic. If the transit proves feasible it may further encourage Russia's plans to construct a LNG plant in the Arctic. 

In the meantime, Russia isn't missing a beat. The Arctic nation recently announced its intention to build a new series of ice-classed LNG carriers. Construction has begun on the series' lead vessel, the "Veliky Novogorod," whose keel-laying ceremony occurred at a South Korean ship yard last week. The Atlanticmax LNG carrier will go to Russia's Sovcomflot shipping company as the first in a line of six vessels equipped for year-round operations in Arctic waters. The Veliky Novogorod is expected to first accept LNG in December 2013.

For more on the Veliky Novogorod click here, and for more on the Ob River click here.