As this month’s Arctic-themed issue of the EXPLORER was coming together, an instructive drama unfolded at the other end of the earth that illustrates a mounting obstacle to Arctic exploration and production.
The Russian research vessel the Akademic Shokalsky was overtaken by a blizzard in late December and stranded in the icy waters offshore Antarctica. In the days immediately following, a series of icebreaking ships from Russia, China and Australia tried and failed to clear a channel through the thick barrier of ice to free the stranded vessel.
The latest would-be rescuer is the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker the Polar Star, which was en route from its port in Sydney, Australia, at the time of this writing.
The Polar Star is, to date, the most powerful vessel to attempt a rescue of the Shokalsky, but it was built 38 years ago with an anticipated life span of 30 years. It was all but decommissioned in 2006, until engine failure took its sister ship, the Polar Sea, out of active use in 2010, necessitating a refurbishing of the Star.
It had been back in service only mere weeks before the Shokalsky’s troubles began.
And that’s somewhat typical for icebreaking vessels. With a limited number of newer icebreaking ships in existence, older vessels like the Polar Star tend to be relied upon long past their intended operating lives.
Finding the Way
Along with an aging, limited and increasingly thin supply, the demand for icebreaking vessels is expected to swell considerably in the decade to come.
With the U.S. Geological Survey estimating almost 90 billion barrels in recoverable oil in the frozen earth of the Arctic Circle, icebreakers will be vital to finding, drilling and transporting it.
“Whatever you do out in the seas, out in the Arctic, you cannot operate without icebreakers. In general, they are essential to anything you do where there’s ice,” said Arto Uuskallio, a naval architect with Aker Arctic Technology, a Finnish engineering company that designs icebreaking ships.
Uuskallio’s company and its predecessors boast of having designed and built roughly 60 percent of the world’s existing icebreaking vessels.
The company’s most recent creation is the NB 508, christened the Baltika – the first of what principals at Aker Arctic Technology hope will be the next generation of icebreaking ships: the oblique icebreaker.
Uuskallio explained the ship design was born out of Russia’s need for a more expedient and economical way to transport crude oil to western Europe through the icy Baltic Sea. Typically, this requires two icebreaking ships, because a single icebreaker cannot cut a wide enough channel on its own to accommodate the massive girth of the Aframax oil tankers.
Naturally, two icebreakers cost more than one, so to reduce operating costs, the Russian Ministry of Transport requested proposals for a single ship design that could accomplish the work of two.
Aker Arctic Technology’s predecessor, Kvaerner Masa Yards Arctic Technology Centre, won the contract with its oblique icebreaker concept.
The ship sports an asymmetrical hub with three “azimuthing propulsors” (that’s engineer-speak for propellers that can turn), which enable the ship to traverse at an oblique sideways angle, thereby cutting a swathe through the ice almost as wide as the ship is long.
The concept was introduced to the public in May of last year, and the Baltika is expected to be operational early this year.
The oblique icebreaker is expected to meet the needs of Russian oil exporters in the Baltic, but it won’t help to meet the growing demand for icebreakers in the Arctic Circle.
Uuskallio explained the qualities that make it useful in the particular niche for which it was designed make it ill-suited for service where more conventional icebreakers would be used.
“The sea-keeping properties are not the same. The movements are different in heavier seas,” he said. “There is always a compromise between different sea-keeping parameters.”
Wanted: A Better Swiss Army Knife
In that regard, the oblique icebreaker is somewhat representative of the economic difficulty of Arctic oil exploration. It’s that variance between different sea-keeping parameters and different operational needs that prevents any single mass-market solution to meet the growing demand for icebreakers.
“Everybody’s got a Swiss army knife, but the more pieces it has, the less useable it’s going to be,” said Bill Scott, general manager for the Chevron Arctic Center.
Scott and his colleagues also are presenting a paper at this year’s ATC, titled “Increasing Role of Marine Support in the Arctic Offshore Exploration Drilling.”
As Scott explained, the ship (or ships) used to manage the ice is among the most significant logistical considerations for Arctic operations.
“It used to be that icebreakers were used mainly to support drilling,” he said, “but they’re being used now to support seismic operations and exploration, and logistical operations.”
The problem, however, is that most existing icebreaking vessels weren’t designed to perform in all of the capacities needed for Arctic exploration and drilling, which means an operator will sometimes have to add multiple vessels to a support fleet, which drives up operating costs.
This likely will force operators to design and build new, multi-function icebreaking vessels, which presents its own difficulties – namely, the aforementioned “Swiss Army knife” conundrum in which, by trying to make it do too much, the vessel turns out to be a jack of all trades but a master of none.
But, Scott explained, operators in the Arctic need vessels to perform masterfully at multiple tasks.
Consequently, new ships have to be customized to the specific environments for which they will be used, which raises multiple considerations for the front and back ends of the operation.
First, building a new ship-to-order requires a long lead time, which forces oil and gas companies to speed up their decision-making process of whether to drill or not.
Second, companies must determine whether the new support vessels will still be useful and economical – and therefore worth the investment – after the operation is finished.