Problematic changes in the Gulf of Ob? | Polarjournal
Rosmorport, Russia’s state-owned port development company, is expected to use dredging vessels to remove 80 million tonnes of seabed from the Gulf of Ob over the next few years. (Photo: Rosmorport)

Never before has the Arctic experienced an industrial expansion of this magnitude. The Gulf of Ob has become the centerpiece of the Russian natural gas and oil industry’s advance in recent years. Yamal is preparing to implement a large-scale project to dredge the Gulf of Ob. This will allow cargo ships to enter Sabetta and Nowy Port safely and pick up cargo. The large-scale development of the area could have fatal consequences for marine life, and environmentalists are now sounding the alarm. Above all, they fear that continued dredging could ultimately destroy rare local fish stocks.

The mouth of the Gulf of Ob is located in the Kara Sea between the peninsulas Gydan and Yamal. The Gulf is about 800 km long and varies in width from 32 to 97 km. With an average depth of 10 to 12 meters, the gulf is relatively shallow, which makes it difficult for large cargo ships to pass through. (Photo: Heiner Kubny/Google)

In the next few years, a number of new industrial projects will be put into operation in the most remote and sensitive areas of the world. New infrastructure is being built, much of it along the Arctic coast. The reserves of hydrocarbons are enormous and large enough to supply the export markets for the coming decades.

Large dredging work

The current main area of oil and gas production in the Russian Arctic is the area around the Gulf of Ob. The natural gas group Novatek already operates the Jamal LNG deposit and loading point, which now supplies more than 16 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas annually. Hydrographic Enterprise has already started selecting a general contractor to widen the navigable access channel from the Kara Sea to the Gulf of Ob.

The local waters are shallow and extensive dredging has been carried out over several years to open them up to the growing ship traffic. In connection with the launch of the “Jamal LNG”, more than 17 million cubic meters of seabed were removed from the shallow Gulf only in the summer of 2016. (Foto: Novatek)

Within the next few years, much larger quantities are to be excavated from the bottom of the Arctic bay. Novatek is building the “Arctic LNG 2” – handling and storage facility. Already its next major project. This facility is scheduled to open in 2023. Until then, transport routes must easily be accessible to production platforms, large tankers and other vessels.

Hydrographic Enterprise is responsible for the lion’s share of dredging. The company, a subsidiary of state-owned nuclear power producer Rosatom,will remove 80 million tons of seabed from the area over the next four years, a company official said.

Shipping in shallow waters

According to Aleksandr Bengert, a leading Rosatomofficial who is committed to the development of Arctic shipping, the dredging work for the Arctic LNG 2 facility and its Utrenneye project terminal, as well as the shipping route that crosses the Gulf, is connected.

This is what the “Arctic LNG 2” loading station will look like in a few years’ time. For a safe entrance, a channel must be milled into the bottom of the Golf of Ob. (Image: Novatek)

Bengert is based in Murmansk and serves as Deputy Head of the Directorate for the Northern Sea Route of Rosatom.

The whole project is a complicated process. The local seabed consists of frozen permafrost. Special ships must first cut the floor to pieces, which only afterwardscan be removed by excavators, Bengert told the Rosatomcompany newspaper.

The large excavation will help to extend the current shipping route across the bay. At present, a 15 metre deep, 295 metre wide and 49 km long channel allows ships to enter the loading points. Over the next three years, parts of the lane will be widened to 573 meters, the state official said. At least 20 billion rubles (250 million Euros) will be needed for operations by 2022, he added.

Up to 60 million cubic meters of material are removed and transported over a three-year period, says Bengert. Added to this are the large quantities that have been removed in recent years.

In the lower part of the Ob, which is now being dredged, the depth was only 2-3 meters.

The “Christophe de Margerie”, an ice-reinforced freighter equipped for the transport of liquefied natural gas, was moored in the Arctic port of Sabetta on 30 March 2017. (Foto: Olesya Astakhova)

Ice screens

In addition to dredging, Rosatom and Hydrographic Enterprise are also involved in the construction of protectice walls against sea ice to help ships safely pass through the icy waters of Ob Bay.

Two protective walls with a length of 1.3 and 3.1 km respectively are to be built, says Bengert. They will consist of pipes with a diameter of up to 2.5 meters, which will be stacked on top of each other, filled with concrete for strength and rammed into the seabed.

80 billion rubles (100 million Euros) are planned for the construction of the protective walls in the period up to 2022, the company representative confirms.

Nowy Port’s loading station is located about 450 kilometres south of the port of Sabetta. At this point, the Gulf of Ob is still 60 kilometers wide. (Foto: Gazprom Neft)

Concern for the environment

Major industrial developments in the Gulf region are now causing increasing concern among environmentalists. According to researchers at the Ural Institute for the Ecology of Flora and Fauna, dredging could ultimately lead to the complete extinction of several marine species unique to the region.

The institute’s head of research, Vladimir Bogdanov, explains to the newspaper Pravda that parts of the Gulf of Ob must remain untouched by energy companies if sensitive fish stocks are to be preserved. In particular, it refers to the waters around Cape Trekhburny, an area where fresh water flows from Taz Bay into Ob Bay.

“When dredging work is carried out in this area, it means death for the fish stocks of the Ob. Neither sturgeon, nor whitefish, stint or the freshwater cod will be there. The valuable fish species of the Ob will disappear. It will be a huge loss that cannot actually be restored. The ecosystem will be completely changed,” he told the newspaper.

According to Bogdanov, there was also great concern among the researchers about the dredging around the Sabetta loading site. Here, however, the environmental impact was less than expected. In the less sensitive parts of the Gulf, local ecosystems will be able to recover over the course of five years, the researcher argues.

The Siberian sturgeon is an important edible fish. The animals normally reach a length of 80 to 140 centimetres and a weight of about 65 kilograms. The largest known Siberian sturgeons had a length of about two meters with a weight of up to 210 kilograms. The males become sexually mature with 11 to 24, the females with 20 to 28 years. Siberian sturgeons can reach an age of about 60 years.

Conflict

The environmental concerns of marine scientists will not end quickly. The Gulf of Ob is currently one of the most important areas of the Russian oil industry. Novatek is developing several major projects in the area. After the Yamal LNG and the “Arctic LNG 2”, the “Arctic LNG 3” and the “Arctic LNG 1” will follow, and Gazprom is in the process of planning several other projects, including the Kamenno-Mysskoye field and the Semakovsky project.

Large-scale dredging work in the shallow bay is a prerequisite for industrial developments. Conflicts with environmental interests will continue to be unavoidable.

According to Bogdanov, representatives of the Russian oil and gas industry stressed during an Arctic conference at the end of 2019 that dredging in the endangered areas cannot be avoided.

Among the projects that need to be dredged is the port of Novy, a field operated by Gazprom Neft. Deeper waters are needed to bring larger oil tankers to the project terminal near Cape Kamenny, industry officials told the researcher.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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