Russia has allowed unreinforced oil tankers to transit its icy Northern Sea Route for the first time, triggering warnings. Moscow risks a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic as it redirects sanctions-hit energy exports to Asia.

Two tankers were given permission in August to make the 3,500-mile journey along Russia’s northern coast, although they were not so-called “ice class” tankers, which are reinforced for icier conditions.

The thin-walled ships headed to China in early September, crossing one of the world’s most dangerous ice passages for the first time, far from any ability to respond to oil spills.

“Sea ice is unpredictable and routes are very difficult to maintain,” said Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace UK. “The use of tankers that do not belong to the ice class further increases the already high probability of accidents.”

Moscow has in recent years touted the Northern Sea Route, which lies entirely in Arctic waters, as a shorter shipping route to China. A warmer climate has opened the route in the summer months, which is far faster than the normal route via the Suez Canal.

The move to allow non-ice class tankers on the route comes as Western sanctions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have hurt Moscow’s ability to get its oil to market. In order to shorten the time required to travel to Asian markets, the Northern Sea Route has already been used more frequently.

A typical journey from the northern Russian port of Primorsk to China via the Suez Canal takes 45 days; Using the Northern Sea Route reduces the time by 10 days. Russia could save an estimated half a million dollars per trip on fuel alone, said Viktor Katona, senior crude oil analyst at Kpler.

In 2022, only one tanker, the heavily strengthened tanker Vasily Dinkov, carried Russian crude to China via this route. However, in 2023, ten ice-class tankers are en route to China, according to Kpler ship tracking data. A reinforced LNG tanker also completed the journey this week.

The use of unreinforced ships may have been possible on the route since 2020. Rosatom, the Russian agency that regulates the Northern Sea Route, allowed non-ice class ships to sail the route in a summer-autumn window from July to mid-November alone or, in lighter ice, with an icebreaker escort.

Rosatom told the FT that “improved navigation conditions in the summer and autumn months allow non-ice class ships to operate safely,” adding that all ships were subject to rigorous inspections. It said environmental aspects “have been and remain a top priority for Rosatom.”

Shipping experts said unreinforced tankers could theoretically travel the Northern Sea Route in September and October, when ice cover is thinnest after the warm summer months. However, major risks remain as ice floes can trap ships and potentially destroy unstrengthened hulls.

Sigurd Enge, senior shipping and Arctic advisor at environmental group Bellona, ​​said the risk was “pretty extreme.” . . A summer day on the northern route is not necessarily an easy journey.”

The icebreaker Christophe de Margerie, right, in Sabetta, Russia. Until now, unreinforced ships on the Northern Sea Route could be accompanied by an icebreaker © Friedemann Kohler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The ice movements there, driven by ocean currents and wind, are highly unpredictable. With less ice, the waves can also be higher and pose other risks.

In late July this year, several ice-class ships encountered sea ice that did not allow for their ice classification and had to wait for icebreaker escort in the East Siberian Sea.

Malte Humpert, a reporter for High North News, a publication specializing in Arctic reporting, said the shipments showed Russia’s “desperation” to sell its oil.

“I think it’s a clear sign that for Russia, selling its energy at any price is more important than the environment,” said Humpert, who first reported the deployment of a tanker, the Leonid Loza.

“The connection between climate change and geopolitics has created this situation. “Russia is desperately trying to get its oil onto the market.”

One of the two unreinforced oil tankers, the NS Bravo, is carrying a cargo of about 1 million barrels of oil en route to the port of Rizhao in eastern China.

The Leonid Loza carries the same amount of oil to eastern China and left the port of Murmansk on September 9, six days after the NS Bravo, according to satellite ship tracking data.

Leonid Loza and NS Bravo are 12 and 13 years old, respectively. Inspection reports show that Russian officials in Port Taman raised concerns about the NS Bravo in December 2020, citing concerns about safety precautions and deck corrosion.

All oil tankers built since 1995 have a double hull to reduce the risk of oil spills. However, if the ships’ hulls are crushed or breached, leaks can still occur.

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