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Development has started on pioneering Arctic LNG plant

Novatek and Total's Arctic gas plant will be a true feat of engineering prowess

Around 2,500 km northeast of Moscow a new genre of liquefied natural gas (LNG) project is being pioneered. The Yamal LNG project is no simple development. Based in the Yamal-Nenets autonomous region in northwest Siberia, which is bordered by the Kara Sea to the north and the Gulf of Ob to the east, the region's remoteness and its harsh climate makes it a project fraught with logistical complexities. 

The local Nenets people call the Yamal Peninsula "the end of the world". Total, which has a 20% stake in the project, agrees. "Sometimes it feels like it's in the middle of nowhere," a Total spokesperson said. "It's a piece of land with more or less nothing. There are no trees and no hills. It could give the impression that it's the end of the world."

Novatek holds a 60% share in the project alongside China National Petroleum Corporation and Total, which split the remaining equity. When completed, Yamal LNG will be one of the largest industrial projects in the Arctic. The group plans to develop gas from the South-Tambeyskoe field and ship it to both Europe and Asia. Novatek says the field holds 907 billion cubic metres (cm) of natural gas. Bringing that gas to market will involve drilling more than 200 wells, building three 5.5 million tonnes per year (t/y) LNG trains, a large gas terminal, and commissioning 16 ice-breaking tankers, each capable of carrying 170,000 cm of gas. In both winter and summer, a tanker will load a cargo of LNG at the Yamal LNG terminal every 38 hours, Total says. First gas is expected in 2017.

Supply run

During the short summer months, the tankers will travel to Asia to supply energy-hungry consumers with gas. The rest of the year, they will sail west to Europe. European ports will either be final destinations for the gas or act as stop off points en route to other markets. Russian Arctic gas could find its way to end-users as far away as South America.

Construction work for the development's infrastructure, including an airport, harbour and camps, has already started. When fully operational this will make the port at Sabetta, soon to be home to the 16.5m t/y LNG liquefaction plant, one of the busiest in Russia's far north.

The remote location is just one of the difficulties facing Novatek and Total. The estuary of the Ob River, where the project is based, is ice-bound for nine months of the year, making construction as tricky as producing the gas and shipping it to market.

For the LNG tankers to break through the ice, Total and Novatek have commissioned the world's first ice-class LNG-carrying vessels. These ships will be made from a special type of steel able to withstand temperatures as low as -50° Celsius. They will have six engines and special propellers that can rotate 360 degrees. None of this is cheap. The total cost of developing Yamal LNG is now expected to be around $27bn. Total says each special ice-class LNG-carrying vessel will cost around $300m. Conventional LNG tankers usually cost about a third less.

A special winterised drilling rig is also needed. These can cost around $30m per rig, Total says, compared with around $20m for a conventional unit. Two large anti-ice barriers will be necessary to protect the port at Sabetta and its tanker traffic from accumulations of ice - or from drifting blocks of fast-moving ice once it begins to break up. A fleet of six icebreakers will keep the port clear and ensure year-round navigation to and from the LNG terminal. But before production can start, the developers need to build onshore facilities - and this, too, will be a difficult task.

Difficult conditions

The freezing temperatures and high winds, which can exceed 50 km per hour, means special equipment is needed to build the LNG plant. The conditions also mean that working hours for labourers are restricted. Total and Novatek have to prevent their facilities from damaging the permafrost at the site. Permafrost is a permanently frozen layer of soil beneath the earth's surface. It can be damaged by the vibrations and heat produced by the LNG plant infrastructure. In winter, the soil can be frozen up to 500 metres beneath the surface. In summer, the top layer of permafrost, known as the active layer, partially thaws, creating an unstable mud crust on top of the permafrost.

To meet the challenge the terrain presents, the partners will sink 60 cm diameter steel anchoring piles 37 metres into the permafrost. The piles will serve as foundations, raising the facilities above the active layer, ensuring they remain stable. The LNG plant, like the jetty to which the tankers will be moored, will be raised 1.5 metres above the ground and will sit on a sandy embankment. Isolating the facilities in this way will offset the effects of the summer thaw and prevent the permafrost's top layer from being altered as a result of warming. It will also ensure that the plant's foundations will be robust. Total says 4,800 piles will need to be installed beneath the LNG plant alone. The plant, which will have an operational life of at least 20 years will weigh several dozen thousand tonnes. It's an impressive feat of engineering.

And all this has to be done in an Arctic environment where winter reigns for nine months of the year. When the temperature falls to -30°C, the construction team is only allowed to work for two or three hours before taking shelter somewhere warm. And when the mercury drops to -40°C, work stops completely. "Our Russian colleagues have much experience of working in these conditions," says the Total spokesperson. "When the conditions become really difficult, and often it's the wind that's more of a problem than the temperature, then we stop." In reality, the spokesperson added, that's only when the temperature gets "really low". 

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