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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Icebreakers Key to Arctic Riches?

HELSINKI -- A Nordic-Russian shipping venture believes it has the key to vast oil and gas reserves locked in Russia's icebound Arctic: tankers that sail backward.

"We'd long been told by captains that ships behave better in ice when they go backward," said Mikko Niini of shipbuilder Kvaerner Masa-Yards, a partner in the venture with energy group Neste and Russian companies.

"So we came up with the result that every ice-breaking ship should be going stern-ahead."

It may sound far-fetched, but Norwegian-owned Kvaerner Masa has built more than 60 percent of the world icebreaking fleet. In cooperation with Russia's Murmansk Shipping Co. and others, Nordic firms now are targeting areas such as the Timan-Pechora region, from Komi on the Arctic Circle through the Nenets region to the Barents Sea.

Total oil reserves of the fields are estimated at 756 million tons, with gas at 522 billion cubic meters -- worth about the same as the total reserves in Norway, according to a study by Statistics Finland.

"If you look 10 to 15 years ahead, this area will be a focus in world energy policy," said Niini. "The big question is how to get the oil to market."

As Western oil companies finalize licensing agreements with the Russian government, the Nordic-Russian venture, called Arctic Shipping Services, or ASS, hopes to persuade them that backward-sailing tankers are more viable than pipelines.

Today's icebreakers work essentially by sliding a solid hull on top of the ice and cracking it with the ship's weight. Icebreakers once had bow propellers to mill the ice in front of them. Apparently for economic reasons, icebreakers since the 1970s have had only stern propulsion, though captains said they went better backward.

Kvaerner Masa has incorporated such wisdom into a rudderless propeller that can face forward or backward to pull or push a ship while providing milling action.

Equally important is the design of the hulls, which must be broad and flat to crush ice. But because they spend only 3 to 5 percent of their lifetimes in ice, they must also be efficient in open water. Kvaerner Masa's answer is a Double Acting Tanker (DAT), bulbous at one end for efficiency in open water, but smooth at the other for ice.

Last year a modified tanker carried the company's first winter oil export cargo from the Tambal field on the River Ob to Neste's Porvoo refinery in Finland. ASS also has carried a cargo from Dudinka east of the Gyda peninsula to Tilbury in Britain.

One potential obstacle to DAT development is the politically charged question of control of Russia's national assets. "Moscow wants pipelines, I think," said Niini. "A pipeline system would keep the transport strictly in their control."

But Neste says he believes Western oil companies will prefer shipping because it offers transportation independence against future political risk.

He argues that extending pipeline links through to the Black Sea or the Baltic would be impractical and costly, as Russia's existing pipelines are aging and their capacity limited.