Arrival of first vessel brings Yamal LNG’s impending start-up into sharp focus.
SCF (Sovcomflot) president and chief executive Sergey Frank positively bounces into Moscow’s Vnukovo airport terminal dressed in peaked cap and quilted jacket with fur-trimmed hood. “Who’s going to the Arctic?” the boss declared to his already excited small team. Frank likes nothing better than to get up close and personal with his company’s assets, and those working in the ice conditions found in Russia’s far north are of particular interest to the engaging and laser-focused head of Russia’s largest shipowner.
Arriving at Sabetta airport — nearly a four-hour flight from the Russian capital and especially built for the $27bn Yamal LNG project — it is a short drive to where the world’s first ice-breaking LNG carrier is berthed. But there is heavy traffic with a line of trucks and construction vehicles stretching in every direction of a lone intersection. There are currently around 30,000 people onsite at this remote Arctic outpost as Novatek and the other Yamal shareholders prepare to start up the first of the project's three 5.5-million tonne trains.
Yamal is one of a handful of key industrial projects for Russia, a fact made evident when country president Vladimir Putin said Russia could become the world’s largest LNG producer. Frank is confident that SCF’s Arc7 LNG carrier, the freshly delivered and ice-trialled 172,600-cbm newbuilding Christophe de Margerie — the first of 15 sisterships for Yamal LNG, will lift the project’s first cargo sometime later this year. The huge vessel paid its maiden call on Sabetta last week, drawing workers out onto the ice to view what is yet another sign that Yamal LNG is closing in on start-up.
This is the first time such a large vessel has navigated the artificially created 50 kilometre seaway canal to Sabetta on the west side of the relatively shallow Gulf of Ob, where the natural draught averages between 10 and 12 metres. Ice-breakers were used to prepare the way for the 290-metre long, 50-metre beam vessel — the biggest ice-breaking ship ever built — but the vessel’s master, Sergey Zybko, berthed the vessel without any other assistance. Onboard, Frank is clearly at home.
A former seafarer himself, many of those working with and for him on this new and challenging Arctic business are former maritime colleagues and classmates. He is warmly greeted by Zybko, who brought the ship out of DSME’s yard in November, through its ice trials, and is about to take some well-earned leave with Captain Sergey Gen taking over. Frank proudly introduces Alexandr Olshevsky and Captain Oleg Durasov, who both have extensive ice experience and have been assisting with the Christophe de Margerie.
He reveals SCF has around 100 masters with ice experience but also that his niche senior management team of about 20 have around 500 years of ice navigation between them. The whole concept of this vessel is the result of our ice experience over the past 10 years with projects like the Varandey Arctic oil terminal and Sakhalin-2, Frank tells TradeWinds. “It’s a milestone. We are like explorers and pioneers,” he said. But the SCF chief is careful to stress that companies working in ice environments like the Arctic need to take small steps to understand the best way forward. He mentions that the past 12 months mark the first time round-the-year navigation has been achieved in the region of the river Ob. SCF’s Arc7 tankers, which ship crude oil from Gazprom Neft’s ‘Novy Port’ at the mouth of the Ob to Murmansk, are instrumental in developing this trade. “It is giving an enormous impetus for the development of the region which is greatly needed,” said Frank.
But there is much to be done in the next few months before the Christophe de Margerie goes into commercial operation transporting some Yamal cargoes to Asia along the Northern Sea Route, with SCF needing to report back to the authorities the findings of operating the ship in the Kara and Laptev Seas and around the Ob. Returning to his “War and Peace” analogy for the Yamal LNG ships initially voiced when he first saw SCF’s Arc7 newbuilding at DSME's pre-launch ceremony, Frank said: “We are done with the preface but are just on the first chapter.”