The Russian government has published a massive new plan outlining its intentions for the Northern Sea Route, the icy shipping artery joining Europe and Asia, offering its most comprehensive vision yet of how it will harness the perceived economic benefits of the Arctic.
The document, signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and published on December 30, reveals for the first time the details of Moscow’s plan to build major infrastructure along the route in an effort to make the Arctic viable for commercial shipping and fossil fuel extraction.
Behind the sweeping initiative is a 2018 decree from President Vladimir Putin, demanding that cargo volumes passing through the Arctic reach 80 million tons by 2024, a sharp increase over present levels. The plan itself – which will shape Arctic development for the next 15 years – pushes further than the decree, aiming for 90 million tons of cargo by 2030.
As expected, the heavy lifting will fall to Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, which has been tasked with most of the 84 development strategies outlined in new document. Overall, the government foresees building at least 40 new Arctic vessels, including nuclear icebreakers; upgrading four polar region airports; constructing far northern railways and seaports, and initiating a massive exploitation of natural resources from the Arctic’s thawing shores – particularly natural gas, oil and coal.
The new venture comes at a disastrous time for the world’s climate. Ice levels in the Arctic are decreasing at an alarming pace – a decline that will only be accelerated by more maritime traffic. According to NASA data, ice cover around the North Pole has been retreating by more than 12 percent each year since 1979. Because of this the Arctic is absorbing more solar radiation, causing polar temperatures to rise twice as fast as anywhere else on earth.
Russia’s own temperatures are increasing 2.5 times faster than any other country in the world, and 2019 saw massive wildfires engulf much of Siberia. That year also marked its hottest on record, according to the Russian federal meteorological service.
While the Russian government acknowledges these impacts in its recently publishes climate change measure, it nonetheless aims to “use the advantages” of warming temperatures and to adapt its economy to the coming changes.
Nowhere is this approach more apparent than in the new Arctic marching orders. Aside from Rosatom, the major developers of new Arctic infrastructure will be Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, Gazprom Neft, the natural gas monopoly’s oil extraction division, and Novatek, which oversees the massive Yamal LNG project.
Coal and mineral extractors like Vostok Coal, Norilsk Nickel and others also have portfolios within the new plan. An extensive geological mapping of Arctic natural resources will be complete by April of this year, the document says.
Also critical to Northern Sea Route development are new railway lines. Under the new document, the government will weigh the decision to develop a rail line to Sabetta, the main seaport for the Yamal LNG project by June. Whether to build a railroad between Arkhangelsk on the Arctic coast to Syktyvkar and Perm in central Siberia will be decided in 2022. By 2024, the government will decide whether to extend the railways west, from Salekhard on the southern Yamal Peninsula to the town of Novy Urengoy in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region.
Several Arctic airports, likewise, will get major upgrades, and whether the Ob River in northern Siberia will be dredges to accommodate more traffic will be decided in December of 2021.
The Murmansk transport hub is also included in the plan, and when complete, will be the largest shipping point in Northern Russia. How much cargo it will send off into the Northern Sea Route isn’t yet clear, but it will mark a new turn in shipping toward the east, instead of via Europe.
While its too early to tell whether these shipping plans will bear fruit, the government is already trumpeting major upticks in traffic along the northern sea route. In November, Rosatom released figures showing that cargo volumes last year had already beaten 2018’s statistics by more than 60 percent.
When final volumes are tallied, they could well crest 30 million tons this year – up from 20 million in 2018 – the bulk of it fossil fuels.