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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 November 2006, 17:46 GMT
Big-dollar deals tempt Arctic firms
By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Kola Bay, Russia

The Belokamenka has become a powerful symbol of Russia's oil and gas adventure

Permanently anchored in the ice-free Kola Bay, the Belokamenka lies safely sheltered from the harsh Barents Sea.

Less than three years after the old supertanker was converted into a mammoth floating trans-shipment oil terminal, it has become a powerful symbol of Russia's oil and gas adventure.

Soaring oil prices have helped transform Russia from an economic basket case into one of the richest and, yet again, one of the most powerful nations in the world.

And given that Russia's arctic north is said to contain up to a quarter of the world's oil and gas reserves, Belokamenka's journey through the choppy energy markets is only just beginning.

In August, about 500,000 tonnes of crude was exported on behalf of state-owned Rosneft and its private rival Lukoil, up from 340,000 tonnes in July and 220,000 tonnes in June.

"Murmansk is not far from Europe and the US, so I think our exports of oil and gas will go up year after year," says Belokamenka's general director, Vadim Ovchinnikov.

Major challenge

Currently, the Belokamenka handles four million tonnes of crude oil per year, shipped in by small shuttle tankers from Archangels where it arrives from Siberian oil fields via a complex network of pipelines and railways.

Sevmorneftegaz website
Sevmorneftegaz is a major pioneer in the arctic

This could treble by 2008 before eventually reaching capacity of 20,000 tonnes per year, predicts Mr Ovchinnikov.

Much of the oil is set to come from new arctic offshore fields to the east of Murmansk, in the Barents Sea and in Ob Bay in the Kara Sea.

The first of many expected to be developed is Sevmorneftegaz's Prirazlomnoye oil field, 60 kilometres offshore to the south of Novaya Zemla, where reserves of 610 million barrels of oil have been identified.

Operating here will be extremely tough.

During the 110 days of the year when these waters are not covered by a layer of ice that is almost two metres thick, crews on the rig will have to battle with 12-metre waves.

During the rest of the year, freezing temperatures, sometimes as low as -50 degrees Celsius, will make their lives hard.

See how the oil will get from the ice-bound platform to open water

Shipping the oil to market will also be tricky.

Rosneft has commissioned new reinforced ice-class shuttle tankers that will be assisted by nuclear-powered ice breakers as they make their way more than 1,000 kilometres through the ice that lies between the field and the Belokamenka terminal.

There, the oil will be reloaded into much larger supertankers for shipment to European refineries, explains Mr Ovchinnikov.

Gas infrastructure

But though Russia's arctic oil reserves are great, they are set to be dwarfed by the region's gas reserves.

Captain Anatoliy Shtin
Captain Shtin is competing head-on with bigger rivals

Energy giant Gazprom is currently preparing to develop the world's largest offshore gas field in the Barents Sea.

Shtokman is estimated to contain 3.6 trillion cubic meters, though that could double when neighbouring gas fields are taken into account, according to Gazprom subsidiary Vniigaz, a development company.

And as is the case with the Prirazlomnoye field, the Shtokman adventure is likely to be the first of many arctic gas fields to be developed, some as far east as Ob Bay, north of the Yamal peninsula, where a network of existing gas pipelines should make transport to market easier.

No such luck for those preparing to develop Shtokman.

Here, a 555 kilometre-long underwater pipeline is to be constructed to ship the gas to shore near Murmansk, where plants will be built to turn the gas into liquid form for exports by supertanker to the US market.

There is also talk of an overland pipe across the Kola peninsula that would link up with the Northern European Pipeline across the Baltic Sea to Germany and the European gas pipeline network.

Entrepreneurial challengers

Seated behind a modest desk covered in paper and faxes from the insurance market Lloyd's of London, Captain Anatoliy Shtin is among a growing elite of entrepreneurs in Murmansk aiming to take advantage of the anticipated oil and gas boom.

Education: $300
Forestry: $400
Mining/metals: $900
Oil and gas: $1,000
Bureaucrat: $1,200
Directors/managers in listed firms: $10,000 to $50,000

Source: Andreev and Partners

Two years ago, Captain Shtin set up the Northern Stevedoring Company from scratch, poaching former colleagues from the Murmansk Shipping Company to build what he describes as the "biggest trader in the Kola Bay".

"I offered better working conditions and the wages here are much higher than in other companies in the region," he says.

So far, Northern Stevedoring has focussed on shipping heating and fuel oil, though Captain Shin has the crude-oil market firmly on his radar.

He is preparing to bring back a ship from the high seas to use as a storage tanker for Gazprom Neft (formerly Sibneft).

And his company is competing head-to-head with Belokamenka for a transport contract from a new oil field in Ob Bay, via its existing terminal in Murmansk.

"If we win the tender, we will acquire a 300,000 tonne supertanker," Captain Shtin says.

Rich and poor

In the centre of Murmansk there are also visible signs that the city's fortunes are being transformed, not least in some of the city's new cafes and restaurants that appear to be a million miles away from the gritty suburbs.

Oleg Alekseevitch Andreev
Professor Andreev says the poor will remain poor

Many people have seen their income grow," observes Professor Oleg Alekseevitch Andreev of the Baltic Institute for Ecology, Politics and Law.

"Fifty to 55% of the people in the Murmansk region are middle to upper-middle class, while 2-4% are really rich owners of property, ships and factories."

Professor Andreev, who also runs a string of consultancy, training and recruitment companies, expects salaries for professional people to soar as the oil and gas industry seeks out local talent to fill bureaucratic jobs.

Ordinary people who lack the skills required will benefit less from the industry's boom, Professor Andreev predicts, since gas and oil experts will instead be flown in for lengthy contracts out on the rigs.

However, this may do little to help the city's "significant minority", he points out.

It seems likely the third of Murmansk's population that is very poor today, will probably remain so in the future.

Graphic of the oil platform

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