The West Alpha rig, provided by a Norwegian company, was transported across a 3,500km distance

US-Russian Arctic drilling launched despite sanctions

US oil giant ExxonMobil has launched drilling for oil at the northernmost well in Russia’s Arctic on Saturday despite international sanctions imposed on Russia.

Carried out by Karmorneftegaz, a joint venture between ExxonMobile and Russia’s state-backed company Rosneft, the cooperation was praised by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during a launch teleconference with the company’s executives.

"Today, commercial success is driven by efficient international cooperation," said Putin during the videoconference.

"Businesses, including Russian and foreign companies, perfectly realise that and despite certain current political difficulties, pragmatism and common sense prevail, and we are pleased to hear that," he said.

The site, known as Universitetskaya-1, lies in the Kara Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean north off Siberia.

“The start of exploratory drilling in the Kara Sea is the most important event of the year for the global oil and gas industry, said Rosneft’s chief executive Igor Sechin. “As a result of this work we are planning to discover a new Kara sea oil province. Developing of the Arctic shelf has a huge multiplicative effect on the whole Russian economy.”

The exploration site is equipped with a West Alpha rig provided by Norwegian company North Atlantic Drilling. To reach the site, the rig had to be transported over a distance of 3,500km via the Barents, Pechora and Kara Seas.

Rosneft and ExxonMobil engineers spent months adjusting the 30,700-ton rig, which is 70m long and 66m wide, for conditions in the Arctic. The rig was upgraded to improve the ability of its systems to withstand extremely low temperatures, and secure maximum reliability of its life support and evacuation systems.

The rig is equipped with an innovative system for monitoring of ice conditions, iceberg detection and tracking of sea ice and uses infrared cameras and on-board radars, together with systems for analysis of satellite and air intelligence data.

According to Rosneft, the engineers have taken extra steps to secure the rig against damage from ice. An iceberg collision prevention plan has been developed, which includes a fleet of support vessels that will tow away the rig to a safe distance if at risk of damage. The rig is equipped with two groups of blowout preventers and an enhanced subsea shut-in device.

ExxonMobile launched the operations despite western sanction against Russia, which, although not designed directly to stop cooperation between Russian and western companies, aim to starve Rosneft and other Russian giants of financing and prevent their access to modern technology.

The USA and the European Union have introduced sanctions including asset freezes and visa bans for businessmen and officials thought to be close to Putin, and limits on access to Western capital for Russian state banks over what Western powers say is Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis.

Moscow has responded by banning food imports from the US, EU, Australia, Canada and Norway, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev threatening further counter-sanctions if the West presses ahead with more penalties.

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