Russian President Medvedev inaugurated the construction of the controversial undersea natural gas pipeline system Nord Stream on 9 April 2010. The geo-political importance of Nord Stream cannot be overestimated. With the construction of the pipeline, Europe and Russia will be tied to each other even more closely. Russia will get a direct link with Western Europe without transit through Eastern Europe. Russia already meets a quarter of Europe’s energy needs. Nord Stream will increase European dependence on Russian natural gas further. Russia presently supplies about 140 billion cubic metre (bcm) of gas every year to Europe. Nord Stream will add up to 55 bcm per year to this capacity.
The gas will be supplied via two parallel steel pipelines of 27.5 bcm/year capacity each. The length of this under sea pipeline is 1220 km. It will begin at Vyborg in Russia near St. Petersburg, cut across the Baltic Sea (maximum depth 210 metres) and reach Greifswald in Germany. It will cost about US $12 billion to build and will be ready to deliver gas by 2012. It will be the largest underwater gas pipeline system when built. The pipeline will pass through the territorial waters and/or economic zones of Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Several side pipelines will be built in different countries to connect with the main pipeline.
The pipeline, discussions about which began in 1997, is an outcome of the strong commitment from former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and Vladmir Putin, the former President and current Prime Minister of Russia. Schroeder is presently the chairperson of the Shareholders’ Committee.
The strongest objection for the pipeline has come from Poland. In 2006, the Polish defence minister compared the agreement between Russia and Germany with the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. There have also been apprehensions that the pipeline may be misused by Russia for spying purposes. Russia has dismissed these allegations as unfounded. Countries like Ukraine, Poland and Belarus stand to lose US $1 billion per year in transit fees when the pipeline is constructed.
Thirty per cent of the funding for the project will be provided from the equity holdings while the rest will be raised by various banks. Several European banks have joined the project to raise funds. Nord Stream is a truly pan-European project in which a large number of companies are joining hands. Russia’s Gazprom holds 51 per cent of shares in Nord Stream AG, Germany’s Wintershall and E.ON Ruhrgas hold 20 per cent each, and the Netherlands’ Gasunie holds 9 per cent. These companies have wide experience in building and operating natural gas pipeline projects around the world. Some other companies are expected to join the project. The equity holding pattern will change in future as more companies join the project. Already funding to the tune of US $4 billion has been raised from 22 banks.
The project will supply Russian gas to Germany, France, Denmank, Belgium and the Netherlands. Eventually a pipeline may be built to connect the United Kingdom also. The pipeline will help Russia diversify its routes and Russia’s dependence upon Ukraine for supply of gas to Europe will reduce. The recipient countries will be freed from supply disruptions caused by Russian-Ukrainian spats in the last few years. This factor alone has compelled Germany to back the pipeline project.
Nord Stream will get its gas supples from Yuzhno-Russkoye gas field which has an proven gas reserves of 700 bcm and estimated reserves of one trillion bcm. The fields in the Yamal peninsula, Ob-Taz bay and Shtokman gas fields will also be added. These are some of Russia’s largest gas fields.
The project will change the nature of Russian-European relations. It is hoped that energy interdependence will forge better ties between the EU and Russia. Nord Stream is crucial for Europe’s energy security. Europe currently needs about 543 bcm of gas annually. This will go up to 629 bcm by 2025. Eighty one percent of this will have to be imported. Nord Stream will meet about 25 per cent of the projected growth in Europe’s gas imports. No wonder the project is listed as a priority project in EU’s Trans-Europe Energy Network (TEN - E).
Despite the beginning of the construction of the pipeline environmental concerns remain. The Baltic Sea is considered to be one of the most polluted seas in the world. Chemical and conventional munitions were dumped into the Baltic Sea after the two world wars. Several surveys have been carried out in the past to map the sites where such munitions may be lying. The pipeline route seeks to avoid sensitive sites. The concern is that construction activities in the sea may stir up the toxic waste in the Baltic Sea. Russia has said that the environmental impact studies done for the Nord Stream show that the pipeline is safe. Finland would not allow any construction ships to anchor in its economic zone. The pipeline project has obtained safety and environmental clearances from the concerned countries and agencies but environmental NGOs like WWF have criticised the environmental impact clearances obtained as inadequate.
Doubts have also been expressed about the economic viability of the project. Will it deliver Russian gas to European customers at an affordable price? Despite these apprehensions, Nord Stream should come as a great relief to energy starved Europe.
Europe is looking for alternative non-Russian sources of energy supply as well. The Nabucco project is one such project aimed at delivering gas from Central Asia to Europe. Russia’s counter to Nabucco project is the South Stream project through the Black Sea into Southern Europe. It may be noted that together Nord Stream and South Stream gas pipelines will equal the gas pipeline capacity of the Russia-Ukraine-Europe system.
Russia is no doubt an energy super power. The dependence of individual European countries on Russian gas varies from 21 per cent in the case of France and 43 per cent for Germany to 74 per cent for Austria, 79 per cent for Poland and 100 per cent in the case of Finland. This dependence is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. The Nord Stream Project will further strengthen Prime Minister Putin’s vision of positioning Russia as a major power in the world.