Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 79

The Russo-German project for a gas pipeline on the Baltic seabed is meeting with growing skepticism and resistance in the region. The Gazprom-led consortium, Nord Stream, has now unwittingly added to those concerns. It has distributed a poorly substantiated, omission-fraught information package to countries around the Baltic Sea regarding the project’s environmental, economic, and other implications for the region. The report has raised more questions than it answered about those and other aspects of the project.

In the course of April, governmental institutions and NGOs from Baltic riparian countries have replied to the consortium’s report, noting its imprecision, missing facts and details, and unclear methodology. The replies, particularly from Sweden and Finland, are raising a host of technical and environmental issues. Those focus on alternative options for the pipeline route in various sectors of the sea, the project’s environmental impact, its consequences for safety of navigation, and risks posed by poorly documented dumps of World War II explosives and chemical munitions on the seabed.

The Gazprom-led consortium has until the coming autumn to answer those questions in order to obtain permission to start construction work on the Baltic seabed. Sweden, Finland, and almost certainly Denmark will not make any decision on authorizing construction, pending a full and satisfactory environmental impact assessment from the consortium.

The pipeline route is planned to run through international waters as well as territorial waters and economic zones of Russia, Finland, Sweden (off Gotland island), Denmark (off Bornholm island), and Germany. The planned route seeks to avoid the territorial waters and economic zones of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, so as to minimize these countries’ say as riparian countries regarding the pipeline project. However, any of the three Nordic countries have the legal right to veto the project if the Gazprom-led consortium does not address their concerns in a satisfactory manner.

Sweden is concerned about the project’s impact on Gotland, the most popular vacation area in the country and site of major wildlife reserves off shore. Moreover, Gazprom construction platforms or undersea construction activities could be misused for eavesdropping on some of Sweden’s own military installations situated in the vicinity.

Denmark has expressed its concerns about the project’s impact on Bornholm island, and Finland has asked the consortium to shift the pipeline route southward, nearer Estonia, so as to protect Finland’s coast along the eponymous Gulf. The Finnish government’s request is not necessarily a selfish move at Estonia’s expense. That move would give Estonia a voice on the environmental impact assessments and, potentially, on vital decisions along with other riparian countries regarding the pipeline project.

Clearly worried by the reception of its initial report, the Gazprom-led consortium is trying to react constructively to those concerns and objections. While ruling out an overland route from Russia via Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland to Germany, the consortium does promise to consider minor “corrections” to the proposed seabed route and began such reconsideration by approaching Estonia. The Baltic seabed is more level in Estonia’s economic zone and thus purportedly more suitable for pipeline construction, compared to the seabed in Finland’s economic zone.

In an exchange of letters this month, the consortium applied to conduct seabed research in Estonia’s economic zone and part of its sovereign zone. Estonia replied that the application did not sufficiently explain the purposes of the proposed research, its duration, and the activities that might be carried out. Consequently, Estonia has asked that the application be re-submitted with necessary details. Under international law, Estonia will have four months to reply, beginning the moment a valid application is received. This sequence alone might cause the proposed research to miss the start this summer and be delayed to spring 2008, with all goodwill on Estonia’s part.

Also this month, the Estonian parliament began consideration of a bill to extend the country’s territorial waters. Authored by Igor Grazin, a deputy from Prime Minister Andrus Ansip’s Reform Party and, incidentally, an ethnic Russian, the bill seems set for easy passage in the parliament.

Estonia had in 1993 reduced its territorial waters in the Gulf of Finland to three nautical miles, by mutual agreement with Finland, which took a similar step. However, Estonia is entitled to sovereignty in territorial waters of up to 12 nautical miles from shore in accordance with international law. In that case, the proposed Nord Stream pipeline might have to run through Estonia’s territorial waters. Under the draft law, Estonia would be responsible for the safety of the environment and navigation in its sovereign zone, ensuring full freedom of shipping.

Moscow and its German partners already rejected a proposed overland route for this pipeline, choosing a seabed route instead, so as to bypass Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. In the event, the planners might be unable to bypass or ignore Estonia after all, let alone count on the Nordic countries for easy approval of this risk-fraught project.

(Roundup based on coverage by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Handelsblatt, DPA, BNS, Interfax, April 2007)