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Russia is sending crude through the Arctic to China


As Russia continues to look for ways to sell its oil and gas, it's turning increasingly to the Arctic. This summer has seen a sharp increase in the number of Russian oil tankers shuttling crude to ports in China via polar waters. Climate change means there is less ice for ships to navigate. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For more than a decade, Russia has been trying to develop the Northern Sea Route, a shipping lane that runs along the country's northern coastline. Russia considers it part of its internal waters. That's disputed by other Arctic nations. Before the war in Ukraine, the Northern Sea Route was mostly used to transport Arctic oil and gas to Europe. That stopped last year after the European Union and the U.K. banned imports of Russian crude.

MALTE HUMPERT: And so now a lot of this Arctic crude oil is headed for Asia - predominantly China.

NORTHAM: Malte Humpert is founder of The Arctic Institute in Washington, D.C. He says in the past, oil tankers rarely tried to navigate the frozen waters of the Northern Sea Route.

HUMPERT: Last year, there was only one ship for the entire year, and we've already seen six ships right now. And the summer navigation season has another six to eight weeks to go.

NORTHAM: Russia does send crude to China via pipeline, but that's not enough to make up for the loss of oil sales to Europe, says Viktor Katona, lead crude analyst at Kpler, a commodity analysis group.

VIKTOR KATONA: Those pipelines are fully maxed out. So anything that would be incremental needs to come from the seas, and the Northern Sea Route is the quickest way right now.

NORTHAM: Katona says using the Arctic route has long appealed to shipping companies because it can cut enormous amounts of time from end to end.

KATONA: So instead of, let's say, 45 days, which it would take for a Russian tanker to go through the Suez Canal - with the Northern Sea Route, they end up having 35 days of voyage.

NORTHAM: But it's a challenging and environmentally sensitive route. Rebecca Pincus is director of the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She says areas such as the far eastern part of the Northern Sea Route still get a lot of thick ice. A couple of years ago, about 20 commercial ships got stuck in the East Siberian Sea.

REBECCA PINCUS: The ships that got trapped had to wait several weeks to be broken out by large icebreakers. And, you know, Russia has a strong fleet of icebreakers, but, you know, it doesn't have continual coverage.

NORTHAM: Pincus says massive oil tankers do not have icebreaking capability. She says earlier this year, Rosatom, which administers the Northern Sea Route, announced it intended to send oil tankers out unaccompanied by icebreakers.

PINCUS: That is a very high-risk plan, you know? It's a sign, I think, of Russian desperation - right? - that Russia's trying to get as much Arctic oil to Asia to bring in income because of, you know, Western sanctions. And so Russia's sort of throwing all of the vessels that it's got at this problem.

NORTHAM: And then there's always the risk of an accident - a tanker getting crushed by ice or running aground. Andrew Hartsig is the Anchorage-based director of the Arctic Program at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group. He says an oil spill would seriously affect the ecosystem - birds, fish, invertebrates on the ocean floor and communities in the area. Hartsig says ice can make an oil spill much more difficult to clean up.

ANDREW HARTSIG: The presence of ice in the water can interfere with mechanical cleanup devices, with booms, with skimmers, and then that area is also subject to strong currents. You know, if there ever were a spill, that oil would not stay put.

NORTHAM: Which could spread the oil to the U.S. side of the Bering Strait. Hartsig says Russia has a pretty good safety record on the Northern Sea Route, but that could change if more vessels are plying the waters across the top of the world. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINUTEMEN'S "COHESION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.