EXPLORERS TRIED for centuries to find a viable route through the Arctic to link Europe and Asia. SS Vega was the first to transit the north-east passage connecting the two, in 1879, but it was only in 1932 that a ship—the icebreaker A. Sibiryakov—made the trip in one go, without having to stop for the winter. What little commercial shipping there was along the route all but vanished after the fall of the Soviet Union.
几个世纪里，探险家试图找到一条穿越北极连接欧洲和亚洲的可行航线。1879 年，织女星号（SS Vega）率先穿越了连接欧亚的东北航道，但中途不得不停下来过冬，直到 1932 年，西比里亚科夫号（A. Sibiryakov）破冰船才首次不间歇地完成航程。苏联解体后，这条航线上零星的商业航运也几乎完全消失了。
The discovery and extraction of vast liquefied natural gas (LNG) reserves on the Yamal peninsula in Siberia in the past decade has renewed interest in bulk transport on the waters of the high north. The warming of the Arctic, and the development of ice-strengthened tankers able to cleave their way through floes up to two metres thick, now make it possible to ship gas and other materials year-round, though especially cold winters may still hinder traffic.
In January this year, thanks to a rise in Asian economic activity and high consumer demand, it was profitable for three vessels carrying LNG to travel between the Sabetta terminal on the Yamal peninsula and north Asian ports. As hydrocarbons begin their decline, Novatek, the Russian company that commissioned these shipments, is gambling on sustained or even growing demand from Asian and European markets.
今年 1 月，由于亚洲经济活动升温以及消费者需求旺盛，有三艘船从亚马尔半岛的萨贝塔港（Sabetta）向北亚港口运输 LNG 并实现了盈利。随着油气价格开始下跌，委托这些运输的俄罗斯公司诺瓦泰克（Novatek）正押注于亚洲和欧洲市场的需求将持续下去甚至增长。
The three ships were new Arc-7 class tankers, with engines running on the same gas contained in their hulls. This makes them far Less polluting than conventional ships powered by bunker diesel. Russia is especially nervous about maritime accidents after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, which was difficult to clean up and caused extensive environmental damage. Russian lawmakers raged against Nornickel, a miner of metals, after a diesel spillage last year, whacking it with a fine of 146 bn roubles ($2 bn)—the biggest environmental penalty ever imposed on a Russian company. If the Arc-7 ships did run aground or get crushed in the ice, there would be next to no slick and their cargo of LNG would evaporate.
这三艘船都是新型 Arc-7 级油轮，它们的发动机使用的燃料正是船上装载的天然气，这使得它们的污染程度远小于使用船用柴油的传统船只。1989 年埃克森・瓦尔迪兹号（Exxon Valdez）油轮在阿拉斯加发生海难，油污难以清理并造成广泛的环境破坏，自那以后俄罗斯对海上事故尤为紧张。去年金属矿业公司诺镍集团（Nornickel）发生了一起柴油泄漏事故，俄罗斯议员大为光火，对它开出了 1460 亿卢布（20 亿美元）的罚单，创下有史以来俄罗斯企业环保罚金的最高记录。如果 Arc-7 级油轮搁浅或撞冰破裂，基本上不会产生浮油，船上装载的 LNG 只会挥发殆尽。
Non-ferrous metals constitute some of the traffic along the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs from the Kara Sea to the Bering strait, but gas is fuelling the revival. And Novatek, which owns the LNG exploitation rights and infrastructure on the Yamal peninsula, is behind it.
在从喀拉海到白令海峡的北方海路（Northern Sea Route）上，有色金属占据了一部分运输量，但天然气才是这条航路复兴的主要驱动力。拥有亚马尔半岛 LNG 开采权和基础设施的诺瓦泰克是幕后推手。
Vladimir Putin’s government provided a leg-up to Novatek, including through generous tax breaks. These have accelerated Russia’s LNG capabilities. Novatek used to rely on Japanese expertise to extract and compress gas in the extreme Arctic conditions. “Now Russia is fully self-sufficient in LNG technology,” says Alexander Sergunin of St Petersburg State University.
普京政府为诺瓦泰克提供了支持，包括慷慨的税收优惠。这加速了俄罗斯 LNG 产业的发展。诺瓦泰克过去依靠日本专业技术在北极的极端条件下提取和压缩天然气。「现在俄罗斯的 LNG 技术已经完全自给自足了。」圣彼得堡国立大学的亚历山大・谢尔古宁（Alexander Sergunin）说。
Novatek’s main advantage is a much shorter sail to market. The NSR makes a voyage between some Asian and European ports about 4,000 miles shorter than the Suez canal route, saving an average of ten days at sea. New shipment hubs near Murmansk in the west, and in Kamchatka in the east, will further speed up conveyance.
诺瓦泰克的主要优势是大大缩短了通向市场的航程。与苏伊士运河航线相比，通过北方海路运往部分亚洲和欧洲港口的航程要短 4000 英里左右，平均能节省 10 天的海上运输时间。海路西端的摩尔曼斯克附近和东端的堪察加半岛（Kamchatka）新建的航运中心还将进一步加快运输速度。
The idea is to use the Arc-7 tankers as ice shuttles between Sabetta and these new hubs. Standard tankers, which are cheaper to build and operate, will then move the gas to customers. The distance between Murmansk and the big north European ports, and Kamchatka and the big north Asian ones, is about a quarter of the distance between the Middle Eastern LNG export hubs and the Asian or European hubs. Arild Moe of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, a think-tank in Lysaker, Norway, notes that the Yamal peninsula could supply at least 70 m tonnes of LNG a year by the end of the decade—almost as much as Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter, manages today.
其构想是使用 Arc-7 级油轮在萨贝塔港和这些新航运中心之间破冰往返。然后使用造价更低、运营更便宜的标准油轮将天然气运送给客户。从摩尔曼斯克到北欧大型港口，以及从堪察加半岛到北亚大型港口，距离只有中东 LNG 出口中心到亚洲或欧洲大型港口的四分之一左右。位于挪威吕萨克（Lysaker）的智库南森研究所（Fridtjof Nansen Institute）的阿里尔德・莫伊（Arild Moe）指出，到 2030 年，亚马尔半岛每年可以供应至少 7000 万吨 LNG——几乎和世界最大 LNG 出口国卡塔尔如今的供应量差不多。
If the overseas bet does not pay off, there are always domestic consumers. Only 70% of Russia is on the gas grid. LNG is generally accepted as the preferred short-term replacement for diesel fuel in deep-sea cargo vessels. And the plastics and composites sector is growing, too. Russia is also working on a hydrocarbon diversification plan. Last year Alexander Novak, a deputy prime minister, launched a committee with big producers, including Novatek and Gazprom, to set the strategy.
如果海外市场的表现不如人意，那还有本国消费者。俄罗斯只有 70% 的地区接入了天然气管网。LNG 是公认的远洋货船柴油燃料的首选短期替代品。塑料和复合材料行业也在增长。俄罗斯还在制定一项油气产业多元化计划。去年，俄罗斯副总理亚历山大・诺瓦克（Alexander Novak）与诺瓦泰克和俄罗斯天然气工业公司（Gazprom）等大型生产商成立了一个委员会来制定相关战略。
As for the route itself, container shipping currently attracts little interest. Because Russia imposes certain rules on transit through the NSR, ships must seek permission for passage. That annoys the Americans, who call for free movement in all waters. But the Panama and Suez canals are increasingly crowded; untenable tailbacks there, or a war in the Middle East, could perhaps tempt shipping companies north. By that time, Russia may have built a fleet of ice-strengthened behemoths.