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Russia’s Controversial European Gas Project Is Under Fire, Again

Russia’s Controversial European Gas Project Is Under Fire, Again

A controversial Russian energy project in Europe has so far weathered a barrage of political and legal hurdles. But now Nord Stream 2, meant to pipe natural gas from Russia to Germany, has hit another potential snag. And for once it’s not over geopolitics or arcane European Union laws, but rather over the pipeline’s impact on a Russian nature reserve.

The pipeline starts on the Kurgalsky Nature Reserve in the Leningrad Oblast in western Russia. But building on nature reserves violates Russian local and national laws, and flies in the face of the 1992 Helsinki Conventions protecting the Baltic Sea and the 1971 Ramsar Convention protecting wetlands. Coalition Clean Baltic, an environmental group, frets the pipeline will cover “the route most harmful to the environment.”

That may not give Russia much pause — but it could cause a headache for some Scandinavian countries, through whose waters the pipeline must run. If Finland, Sweden, and Denmark move forward with the project, environmental experts say, they’ll be knowingly violating international environmental conventions.

“The Nordic countries do not want to politicize the permitting procedure, but when they are faced with evidence that environmental conventions are being trampled on, they will have to consider this,” said Sijbren de Jong of the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

Nord Stream 2, the planned successor to a similar pipeline opened in 2011, is at the center of a massive political fight tearing at European unity. Countries in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states, worry the project will simply redouble Moscow’s stranglehold on European energy supplies — leverage it has used in the past to cow its neighbors. EU officials have said the project would hurt Ukraine, and runs counter to Brussels’ plans to diversify its sources of energy.

Meanwhile, countries in Western Europe — especially Germany — are receptive to the project, which they see as a purely commercial endeavor, and several Western European energy firms are ponying up billions to make the pipeline a reality. Complicating the whole debate is whether an additional pipeline is even needed: The original Nord Stream pipeline isn’t used at full capacity, and European demand for natural gas is basically flat. Meanwhile, new sources of natural gas for Europe are appearing, including exports of liquefied natural gas from countries like Qatar and the United States.

Gazprom, the Russian gas giant, says the project’s aims are purely commercial — it would deliver big volumes of affordable gas right into the heart of Europe — and and denies there’s any nefarious political game behind the business dealings. But it dovetails perfectly with Gazprom’s declared plans to bypass Ukraine as a transit route for Russian gas headed west to Europe.

So far, environmental concerns have taken a backseat to the big geopolitical wrangling, but the way they’ve been handled highlights just how political the project has become — and how some EU members could be caught in an awkward position if they knowingly violate environmental laws to push the project forward.

Greenpeace Russia has vowed to fight the deal tooth-and-nail, but they said it is being ignored even by EU members. “They ignored our warnings about this problem,” Mihail Kreindlin of Greenpeace Russia told Foreign Policy. “The project is illegal, not according to just Russian legislation, but international law.”

And it’s not just the nature preserve that has environmental and energy experts in Northern Europe riled up. Concerns also abound over the project’s environmental impact assessment, the technical survey meant to measure the footprint of major construction projects before they break ground. All governments involved in the project and the consortium behind Nord Stream 2 are relying on an assessment conducted by a scientific consultancy called the Ramboll Group.

Ramboll paints a rosy picture, saying the project will only have minimal environmental impacts, mostly during the construction phase. But there could be a caveat: Gazprom, through Nord Stream 2, bankrolled the Ramboll Group’s environmental assessment.

A spokesman for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency told FP it’s common practice for developers to fund environmental assessments, and for government bodies to review them and reach their own conclusions — but only for own national territory. This means Gazprom is the only party in the project that commissioned an assessment for the full project.

“This raises a lot of issues,” said Mikhail Durkin, executive secretary of the Coalition Clean Baltic. “Who could be an independent judge now?”

Nord Stream 2 released the assessment in April, and is giving governments and nongovernmental organizations until June to provide feedback before the Russian government makes its final decision on whether to move forward with the project. Experts say that’s not enough time to undertake a full study or critical review of the 765-page report.

“The timeline is just so stunning,” said Anke Schmidt-Felzmann, an expert on the Baltic Sea region with the Swedish Institute of International Affairs who was at a Nord Stream 2 briefing in Stockholm on May 2. “All different actors have such little time to respond to it. This is just not fair play,” she told FP.

So far, experts have found what they say are big holes in the environmental report. It claims the route selected is the best one to minimize environmental damage — even though it will run through a nature preserve and other sensitive areas. That claim “has been based on either falsified, incomplete, or simply ignored scientific data,” the CCB report alleges.

The Ramboll Group did not respond to FP’s request for comment.

And while the pipeline has a projected 50-year lifespan — going out to 2070 — the assessment only measures impacts through 2035, raising further concerns.

“Once you take a closer look at the smaller details in the hundreds and hundreds of pages of filings, there are a lot of gaps and questionable assumptions in the documents,” Schmidt-Felzmann said. “I find it really quite appalling.”

The criticism hasn’t fazed Nord Stream 2, which boasted on Twitter “no environmental impact” for a massive gas pipeline spanning the Baltic Sea:

A spokesperson for Nord Stream 2 told FP “the project was selected based on an assessment of the available alternatives and has been optimized following consideration of extensive environmental survey data, acquired specifically for the project, for both in the onshore and offshore route section.”

“The Nord Stream 2 project will be implemented in compliance with all applicable legislation,” the spokesperson added.

In any event, the pipeline’s sponsors aren’t waiting for a full greenlight to start breaking ground. Regulatory bodies in Sweden and Finland have yet to approve permits for the project, but construction and work have already begun. In March, for example, Nord Stream 2 announced it began preparing the pipes for the project in Finland. On May 2, it announced a big supply deal from a Swedish company. (Those steps came just months after the Swedish foreign and defense ministers jointly warned that Nord Stream 2 poses tangible threats to Swedish national security.)

“This is really hypocritical,” said Durkin of CCB. “You’re claiming you’re open and working in accordance with international environmental standards, but you started the project before even any review.”

Experts and environmental watchdogs aren’t holding their breath, knowing that they face an uphill fight against the geopolitical forces behind the project.

“The Nordic countries indeed have a record of taking environmental concerns seriously,” said Tim Boersma, an energy expert with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. But since the project’s predecessor, Nord Stream 1, was greenlighted over environmental concerns, this issue probably won’t be a deal breaker for its successor either, he told FP.

In the meantime, environmental groups hope to pressure Nord Stream 2 to at least move the project away from from nature preserves. In Russia, environmental watchdogs there say, legislators are redrawing the borders of the Kurgalsky nature preserve around the pipeline’s starting point to try and bypass environmental restrictions.

Though Nord Stream 2 already lined up from five European energy firms the funding for half the $10 billion price tag, it’s reportedly seeking more money from the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation. But the World Bank has its own strict environmental standards for doling out cash.

Clean Coalition Baltic and other groups plan to petition the World Bank unit to delay or move the project, but hopes aren’t high.

“A lot of actors in the project say ‘well, the Russians and Germans want this. Who are we tiny people to put a stop to it?’” said Schmidt-Fezlmann. “There are bigger fish to fry and if they really want it, they will make it happen.”

Photo credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images