CMA CGM Pledges Not to Use Northern Sea Route

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The Sovcomflot-operated icebreaking LNG carrier Christophe de Margerie at Yamal LNG on the Northern Sea Route. The de Margerie and her sister ships are specially designed for the conditions of the NSR. (Total)


CMA CGM head Rodolphe Saadé announced Friday that his firm’s ships will not use the Northern Sea Route above Russia, the Arctic alternative to the busy Asia-EU route through the Suez Canal.

The NSR is opening up for shipping due to decreasing Arctic ice coverage, and its development is a major priority for the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is a politically-sensitive region – for foreign military vessels, the route is subject to special Russian regulatory measures, even in non-Russian waters – and it is also an environmentally-sensitive Arctic environment.

In a statement, CMA CGM emphasized environmental risk in explaining its decision. “Rich in its unique and largely unexplored biodiversity, the Arctic plays an essential role in regulating ocean currents and global climate patterns. The use of the Northern Sea Route will represent a significant danger to the unique natural ecosystems of this part of the world, mainly due to the numerous threats posed by accidents, oil pollution or collisions with marine wildlife,” the company said in a statement.

At present, the route is open without icebreaker escort for about three to four months of the year. It is not served by any transoceanic container services and is not presently considered competitive for this purpose, according to Maersk Line. Last year, the number-one ocean carrier tested the route for a delivery voyage and said that it did not plan to follow with regular cargoes. “Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as a commercial alternative to our existing network, which is defined by our customers’ demand, trading patterns and population centers,” the firm said in a statement.

Saadé presented CMA CGM’s position at a ceremony at the Elysée Palace Friday attended by French business leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron and several of Macron’s ministers.

French oil major Total is a prominent backer of the Yamal LNG project in the Russian Arctic, which is the primary commercial user of the Northern Sea Route. Yamal LNG exports its cargo using a fleet of specially-built icebreaking LNG carriers, which are capable of transiting the NSR eastwards to Asian markets for part of the year, circumventing the long southern voyage around Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

CMA CGM’s announcement comes in advance of the next G7 Summit, which will be held in Biarritz this weekend. 30 environmental NGOs are boycotting the event, alleging that Macron is attempting to prevent their involvement at the summit by limiting the number of available accreditations. The list of organizations involved in the boycott includes Greenpeace and Oxfam France.

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