Nord Stream gas pipeline a danger for the Baltic ecology

In April, the Young Conservative League of Lithuania started calling for support from compatriots and residents of neighbouring countries to oppose construction with a petition titled “Protect the Baltic Sea while It’s Still not Too Late!” The petition is available on the web, where, translated into all state languages of the countries of the Baltic region, it can be signed electronically.

“The Baltic Sea is our common treasure –“mare nostrum” of the European Union […] Today we understand that our welfare in part depends on [the] environmental condition [of] the Baltic Sea. By giving the internationally recognized status of [an] “Especially Sensitive Sea Area,” the states of the Baltic Sea region committed themselves to limit[ing the] commercial exploitation of [its] seabed in order to preserve this unique but exhausted sea for the future generations,” the petition reads.

Possible consequences of the Nord Stream gas pipeline project – which implies that gas companies will excavate and use explosives during construction works in order to lay the 1,200-km pipe – cause a “deep and legitimate concern,” the petition continues.

“We appeal to all people of good will to express your concern regarding [the] irresponsible actions of politicians and [the] potentially harmful actions of companies and to demand full disclosure of environmental risks of the project for the Baltic Sea and 85 million people living around the Baltic Sea basin,” the petition’s authors conclude.

The organisers of the action intend to pass the petition – along with the lists of signatures collected and the demand to initiate an independent environmental impact study of the Nord Stream pipeline project – to various European Union institutions, as well as national governments.

Nord Stream and the Espoo Convention
By end March, the company responsible for developing the gas pipeline project, Nord Stream AG, had received 129 comments from the Baltic nations that all concerned evaluating the potential environmental harm that the project might incur on the region. Germany and Sweden both sent in 29 statements each, 50 came from Finland and 12 from Estonia, and Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia each sent one. These reports concluded the first stage of the procedure of international consultations that is required for cross-border projects such as Nord Stream by the internationalEspoo Convention.

The Convention on the Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, signed in Finland’s Espoo in 1991, was developed by the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe. It is the main international legal act serving as the basis for transboundary ecological risks studies.
The Nord Stream project is No. 8 – it falls under the category of oil, gas or chemicals pipelines using large-diameter pipes – in Appendix I to the convention, which lists activities with implied risks of harmful cross-border environmental impact.

In agreement with the Espoo Convention, parties whose interests are likely to be affected by a transboundary industrial project have the obligation to participate in assessing potential impact of the project on the environment. In the case of Nord Stream, these parties include all the countries of the Baltic region. These are the so-called “Parties of Origin” – Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany, whose exclusive economic zones (sea zones over which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources) and territorial waters are expected to be traversed by the pipeline – and the “Affected Parties,” which are Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

In November 2006, the pipeline’s operator sent an official notice of the start of the Nord Stream project to the relevant bodies of these countries, where public hearings were then held. Russia, which so far is not an Espoo Convention party, has not yet organised any hearings on the subject.

At a meeting at the end of March, the Parties of Origin negotiated the necessity to develop a unified transboundary report on possible adverse environmental impact of the project taking into account all potential affects along the whole planned stretch of the pipeline. The report, complete with all comments forwarded from evaluating parties, including from the public hearings, is planned to be presented to the parties’ regulation bodies by the project developer at the end of the summer.

Based on these recommendations, the developer company will start preparing the programme for the assessment of Nord Stream’s potential environmental impact and carrying out concluding studies along the whole length of the pipeline. The full version of the report will be presented, as planned, to the regulation bodies of the Baltic countries by the end of the summer.

This will be followed by the second stage of international consultations – public hearings and preparation of recommendations, and already in the beginning of 2008, Nord Stream AG plans to sign off on a final version of the environmental impact study and start the construction of the pipeline’s sea-based portion.

Move the Stream – or better yet, dry it up
The Russian-German gas pipe project has defied the borders of the freezing Baltic waters and transformed into a heated debate in the halls of Baltic governments. If only environmental concerns were used in these disputes as something more than just a cover for the real political and economic interests that these countries are protecting and that Nord Stream is likely to hurt. The pipeline will allow Russia to deliver its gas to Europe past Poland and Lithuania, which will not only lose both the transit tariffs and the opportunity to influence gas prices, but Russian gas itself.

Sweden doubts the pipeline’s necessity. Lithuania expresses its displeasure. Poland voices ferocious opposition. Estonia has taken a stance of active unwillingness to cooperate. And Finland does not mind the project if the evaluation of its ecological risks is carried out with due diligence.

According to Lithuania’s prime minister Gediminas Kirkilas, Lithuania thinks negatively of the project.

“It will not enhance safety of gas deliveries, or integration of isolated markets, not to mention the serious threat to the environment,” Kirkilas was quoted by the Expert Online publication as saying.

The comments forwarded to the project developer by Lithuania say that all various routes along which to lay the gas pipeline must be considered, such as one that is most economically efficient for the project owner, or one that is least harmful for the environment, or one that does not involve using the seabed at all. In the opinion of Secretary of the Lithuanian Ministry of the Environment Alexandras Spruogis, a land-based route for the pipeline would be a much cheaper option and safer for the environment.

Experts with the Swedish Agency for the Protection of the Environment are of the same opinion. Nord Stream AG should look at such alternatives as land-based construction only or try planning the route in the way that the pipeline does not cross the special conservation areas of the sea, they say.

In Sweden’s view, further assessments are warranted on what negative effect laying the pipeline could have on the sea’s flora and fauna and more consideration should be given to the risks of flushing poisonous substances into the seawater or the danger that the construction works could accidentally trigger explosions from the dormant mines that have remained on the Baltic seabed since the time of World War II.

The hidden menace
Among the various environmental concerns expressed in relation to the construction of the gas pipe, the issue of the toxic materials and chemical weapons buried at the bottom of the Baltic Sea in the days of the Second World War is probably one that has been raised most often. This reasoning is also behind the objections against Nord Stream voiced by Finland, Denmark and Estonia.

On March 21 through 23, St. Petersburg hosted the 8th International Baltic Sea Day Ecological Forum. Among the events that took place during the forum was a round table discussion titled “The Nord Stream Project: Assessment of Environmental Impact in the Framework of the Espoo Convention.”

Chaired by Nord Stream AG’s technical director Sergei Serdyukov, a member of the Russian State Duma’s Ecology Committee, Alexander Startsev, and the head of the Russian Delegation in the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, or the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), Natalya Tretiyakova, the round table welcomed 92 representatives of nine countries, including seven nations of the Baltic Sea.

Looking at further actions that could be undertaken in the project’s ecological risks assessment study, the round table agreed on a resolution, where its participants recommended that research be continued into any reasonable alternatives – geographical or technological – to the activity planned by Nord Stream, including the option of full cessation of the activity.

Further research, said the resolution, is also needed into the consequences of the destruction of the seabed; possible impact from the sunken chemical and other weapons of the period of the Second World War, as well as from dangerous technogenic substances; the risks for commercial fishery; assumed conditions and suggested terms of crossing of the pipeline and the coastal line; and other risks.

“The conclusion of inter-governmental agreements on the construction of the gas pipeline Nord Stream along the seabed of the Baltic Sea, where sunken chemical weapons of the time of the Second World War still remain, is grounds to give further consideration to the impact of these weapons on the ecosystem of the Baltic Sea,” the round table’s resolution said.

The participants of the round table urged the governments of Great Britain and the US to remove the secrecy seal from documents relating to the chemical arms sunk by these countries’ forces during the war and recommended that HELCOM re-examine the issue.