The polar ice cap is melting, and if executives at the Russian energy company Novatek feel guilty about profiting from that, they do not let it be known in public.
From this windswept shore on the Arctic Ocean, where Novatek owns enormous natural gas deposits, a stretch of thousands of miles of ice-free water leads to China. The company intends to ship the gas directly there.
"If we don't sell them the fuel, somebody else will," Mikhail Lozovoi, a spokesman for Novatek, said last month with a shrug.
Novatek, in partnership with the French energy company Total and the China National Petroleum Corp., is building a $20 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the central Arctic coast of Russia. It is one of the first major energy projects to take advantage of the summer thawing of the Arctic caused by global warming.
The plant, called Yamal LNG, would send gas to Asia along the sea lanes known as the Northeast Passage, which opened for regular international shipping only four years ago.
Whatever blame for the grim environmental consequences of global warming elsewhere in the world that might be placed on the petroleum industry, in the far North, companies like Novatek and Total, Exxon Mobil of the United States and Statoil of Norway stand to make profit.
"It's a reality of what is available today, and commercially it is a route that cuts cost," Emily Stromquist, a global energy analyst at the Eurasia Group, said in a telephone interview.
Because of easing ice conditions and new hull designs, the tankers will not even require nuclear-powered icebreakers to lead the way - as is the practice now - except through the most northerly straits.
Novatek's alternative was extending the natural gas pipeline that goes to Europe over hundreds of miles of tundra, at great cost. While shipping the gas from the field on the Yamal Peninsula, one of the long, misshapen fingers of land that extend north of the Urals in Russia, remains expensive, it is relatively cheap to drill and produce from these rich fields, making the overall project competitive.
In addition to making it easier to ship to Asia, the receding ice cap has opened more of the sea floor to exploration. This has upended the traditional business model of using pipelines to Europe. Thawing has proceeded more slowly in the Arctic above Alaska, Canada and Greenland, but one day what is happening in Russia could happen there.
Still, the Arctic waters are particularly perilous for drilling because of the extreme cold. Tongues of ice that descend from the polar cap for hundreds of miles obstruct shipping and threaten rigs. After a rig ran aground last year, Shell canceled drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.
This is not the first Arctic venture to benefit from newly cleared sea lanes. The decision to open the Arctic Ocean to drilling passed Russia's Parliament in 2008 as an amendment to a law on subsoil resources. Exxon and Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, are already in a joint venture to drill in the Kara Sea, and last month they agreed to expand to seven new exploration blocks in the Arctic. Fourteen wells are planned.
With these ventures, Exxon has placed itself in the vanguard of oil companies exploring commercial opportunities in the newly ice-free waters.
In Russia, the mining company Norilsk can now ship its nickel and copper across the Arctic Ocean without chartering icebreakers, saving millions of rubles for shareholders.
Norway is also drilling deep in Arctic waters, but has less territory to explore. Tschudi, a Norwegian shipping company, has bought and revived an idled iron ore mine in the north of Norway to ship ore to China via the northern route.
In northwest Alaska, the Red Dog lead and zinc mine moves its ore through the Bering Strait, which is less often clogged with packed ice than in past decades.
What is new in the Novatek project is an oil industry business plan that relies explicitly on the Northeast Passage. Though Russian ships have moved goods along the country's sprawling Arctic coastline for more than a century, and the route was opened to international shipping in 1991, it became apparent only recently that climate change would make the trip profitable.
The German shipping company Beluga made the first international commercial transit in 2009. The first transshipment with fuel, a cargo of gas condensate bound for China, crossed in 2010. By last summer, just three years after the first passage, 50 ships crossed above Russia, including eight tankers chartered by Novatek to test the route.
Novatek has said it needs bank guarantees for $16 billion in project financing, while it and its partners will finance the rest. To secure these loans, the company needs a change in Russian law lifting Gazprom's monopoly for exports.
President Vladimir V. Putin, in a speech at an economic conference on June 21, said the law would change before this year was out, signaling that Yamal LNG had full Kremlin backing.
If Russia can ship large volumes of gas to Asia, it could send ripples through the Asian markets and put a damper on plans to build liquefied natural gas export terminals in the Gulf of Mexico. The United States and Russia are the world's two leading gas producers.
Novatek has been experimenting with commercial models to complement the new shipping route. To fulfill contracts in the winter, when the northern route is more hazardous, the company can ship gas west over northern Russia, then around Europe, through the Suez Canal, and onward to Asia.
It has also negotiated with Qatar, a major Middle Eastern natural gas exporter, for a swap arrangement to save tanker fuel and time: Qatar would fulfill Novatek's Asian contracts during the winter while Novatek, in exchange, would fill Qatar's contracts to European customers during those months.
The company intends to open the Arctic plant by 2016. It has already asked for bids for two ice-hardened tankers, which should be able to navigate the sea lanes toward China seven months a year and the routes to the west year round.
It says it has mastered building in the Far North where, counterintuitively, Russians labor mainly through the cold polar night in winter, when the tundra is more accessible to heavy equipment.
The company, Lozovoi said, is keeping an eye on climate studies of the Arctic.
He said that because of engineering tolerances built into the ship designs, "even if the climate turns toward cooling, and the ice thickens, we will make money."
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
The New York Times