Commissioning of Russian export gas pipeline postponed until mid-2021
The Akademik Chersky pipelayer continues to patrol in the Baltic Sea. After several weeks of testing on the Curonian Spit, the vessel, which was charged with the main tasks of completing the last subsea section of the Nord Stream 2 (SP-2) gas pipeline, has returned to the German port of Mukran and is ready to join construction work. Meanwhile, even with all Gazprom’s efforts to accelerate the creation of a new export route, there are still many factors that can prevent Chersky from bringing the pipeline to European consumers.
Construction of the remaining section of SP-2 was halted in December 2019 after Swiss contractor Allseas refused to continue pipe-laying work on the bottom of the Baltic Sea under threat of US sanctions from the United States. By that time, the project was almost 95% complete.
When it became clear that Russia would have to build the pipeline on its own, the most suitable for replacing the Swiss vessels turned out to be the Akademik Chersky – a modern pipelayer laid down at Chinese shipyards and completed in Singapore. Initially, it was proposed to use it for the development of fields in the Sea of Okhotsk, but after the demarche, Allseas had to be reoriented to the Baltic route.
The Akademik took the course to the construction site in the shortest possible time: it left the port of Nakhodka on February 10. At the same time, the pipelayer constantly changed the route and named new destinations. There were truly mysterious events. After leaving the Russian sea territorial waters, “Chersky” headed towards Singapore, where it was supposed to arrive in less than two weeks. Formally, through the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the pipelayer headed directly to the Baltic, where it was going to complete the repair and modernization, and then go into operation.
At the end of April “Chersky” hoped to get to the Egyptian Port Said, but literally a few days before the expected arrival, its crew changed their destination and explained that they were returning to Nakhodka. However, the vessel, which had already been taken under guard by the Russian Navy’s warships, sailed around Africa and arrived at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. After that, most experts stopped doubting that Akademik would reach the Baltic Sea. In early May, it anchored near Kaliningrad, and a few days later docked in the German Mukran, where the logistics base of the gas pipeline under construction is located.
True, “Chersky” was in vain in a hurry, since it was impossible to immediately start work on the SP-2. The Danish Energy Agency, through whose water area the pipeline route passes, demanded that Gazprom provide an updated construction plan, adjusted personally for Akademik. At the same time, we had to work in the legal field to protect Chersky from American sanctions claims. The vessel was re-registered from the balance sheet of Gazprom-Flot to the Samara Heat and Power Property Fund, the list of whose founders were not disclosed. And although it was obvious that the new owners were acting as a signboard, it was not possible from a legal point of view to prove the control of the Russian gas company over the fund. Thus, Gazprom was removed from hypothetical US sanctions.
“Akademik” himself did not stand still at that time. According to the sea captain Mikhail Omelchenko, the frequent change in the route of the vessel from Nakhodka to Mukran is difficult to explain from the point of view of logic. It was much more convenient to get to the construction point via the Suez Canal, without making a circle around the African continent. It is possible that circumstances related to the dimensions of the ship did not allow to go this way. Although some analysts associate the pipelayer’s “odyssey” with Russia’s attempt to “cover up the tracks” of its movement in order to deceive the US Treasury, without giving rise to tougher sanctions against the only domestic vessel capable of completing the SP-2.
However, does Chersky’s capabilities really allow laying the remaining 100 km of the pipeline? Only a narrow circle of initiates knows the exact answer to this question. The ship does not have significant experience in similar projects: theoretically, Akademik was involved in the construction of the Sakhalin-3 gas pipeline in the Sea of Okhotsk, but in fact, since its acquisition by Gazprom in 2015, the ship has been undergoing modernization and repair work. According to a number of industry experts, in early 2020, when it was decided to replace the Swiss contractor with Chersky, the Russian vessel was not ready for operation as a full-fledged SP-2 pipelayer, since it did not have the appropriate welding and assembly equipment.
According to some reports, work on the re-equipment and improvement of the “Akademik” continues to this day. He returned to the German Mukran on October 27, and earlier for several weeks the ship drifted near the Curonian Spit, where its sea trials took place, and the anchor positioning system was tested, which had to be installed at the request of the Danish environmental authorities.
According to Sergei Pikin, Director of the Energy Development Fund, it seems that the creators of the SP-2 managed to remove most of the technical problems that hindered the start of work on the offshore section of the gas pipeline. Since the ship and other ships participating in the project have returned to Mukran, it means that the tests have been completed and the Akademik can begin construction. Moreover, in fact, he has already joined in the direct process of laying the line, since he returned to the German port, where the pipes are stored, and can begin to equip his holds with the necessary equipment. US sanctions shouldn’t seriously increase the timeline for completion. Even in the new interpretation, the restrictions of the US State Department affect Western companies involved in the technical side of the project, and pipe-laying will be carried out by Russian vessels.
Nevertheless, it will not be possible to quickly start completing the construction of the SP-2 offshore section at Chersky. According to the editor of the Polish trade publication BiznesAlert Mariusz Marszalkowski, after sea trials, additional work will be required onboard, which will take several more weeks, so the pipe-laying may be postponed until the end of November.
Experts assess the next delay quite negatively. Many are convinced that after the US presidential elections, pressure on SP-2 will increase, especially if Donald Trump is defeated. The gas monopoly also understands this: according to the head of Gazprom Export, Elena Burmistrova, the completion of the project is impeded not only by weather conditions or technical characteristics but also by “the high politicization of the controversy around the pipeline. Washington’s new sanctions risk being far more painful than previous restrictions. There are recent examples when the re-registration of mining assets did not save foreign projects of Russian companies from the pressure of the White House.
Even if Chersky joins construction this year, the pipeline will be commissioned closer to mid-2021. Surely the Americans will try during this time to create as many political and legal obstacles as possible to complete the SP-2 project. Therefore, there is a serious possibility that Akademik will still have time to improve its technological potential and test maneuvers in the Baltic waters.