Security vs. Environment: Issue-Framing in the Nord Stream Pipeline Project

April 2010 marked the beginning of the construction of Nord Stream, a controversial joint project of Gazprom, BASF SE/Wintershall Holding, E.ON Ruhrgas, and N.V. Nederlandse Gasunie. When completed, the pipeline will be 1,220 km long and will run on the Baltic seabed from Vyborg, Russia to Greifswald, Germany.  The pipeline will ultimately provide 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas per year to meet Western Europe’s growing energy demands.

The controversy surrounding the Nord Stream pipeline has developed in two distinct directions: the region’s political security and the Baltic Sea’s environmental health. Security concerns have been raised by countries that fear the growing dependence on Russian gas imports and Gazprom’s rising influence over Europe and Baltic gas transit states. Environmental concerns have also been voiced by the governments of countries bordering the Baltic Sea. When these two seemingly disconnected sets of concerns are examined, an intriguing link between the two emerges. Analysis of the legal framework behind the development of the project shows that an appeal to internationally recognized laws and standards can best be achieved through environmental objections. There is also a consensus that environmental issues transcend national boundaries and interests. They are considered more objective than the concerns over diminishing political leverage, and their solutions can be more clearly identified. This urges countries to discuss projects that threaten the environment, cooperate on solutions to environmental challenges, and invites countries to voice environmental risks to influence projects like Nord Stream when voicing security concerns does not produce the desired effect. The planning for Nord Stream exposes the role that outside concessions and overstated environmental arguments play in deciding the fate of large energy projects like Nord Stream.

The EU views Nord Stream as a positive development toward increased energy security, given European countries’ rapidly growing energy demand, uncertainties about global fossil fuel supplies, strategic limitations on obtaining those resources, and commitment to environmental protection. However, concerns remain regarding broader European energy policy and security. Nord Stream creates a new route directly linking the Russian supplier to markets in Germany and Western Europe. However, the company supplying the resource—Russian gas giant Gazprom—remains the same. Gazprom already supplies a quarter of Europe’s gas and as Europe’s gas import volume grows, the Russian company will have increasing leverage on the European economy. Though the pipeline is a strategic step toward ensuring European energy security, it increases Europe’s dependence on Russia and stifles the EU’s aspirations for energy independence.

Countries bordering the Baltic Sea are sensitive to Russian activity in their territorial waters or their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). The construction, operation, maintenance, and most importantly, protection of the pipeline all indicate an increased Russian presence. The Baltic States, Poland, Finland, and Sweden fear that the Russian navy will begin to actively patrol the waters to protect the pipeline, thereby increasing military activity and accentuating regional tensions.
Countries that have been key transit states for Russian gas imports into Europe face another problem. As Nord Stream begins transporting 55 bcm of gas through the Baltic, the importance of the onshore Yamal-Europe pipeline, which transits through Belarus, Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Austria, is expected to diminish. Upon Nord Stream’s completion, Russia will no longer rely solely on the territorial pipelines to export its gas to the large western European market, and will therefore make fewer efforts to maintain a sound relationship with the East European transit states. This shift in the energy politics of the region has alarmed Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States, since they expect to lose influence, access to resources, and transit fee revenues.

Aside from Nord Stream’s security implications, an array of environmental concerns regarding the construction and operation of the project have alarmed the nine countries bordering the Baltic Sea. The main fear is that the pipeline’s construction could stir the toxic materials and naval mines that were dumped into the sea after World War II, thus endangering the ecosystem.

The Latvian president has drawn attention to the fact that the sea’s circulation is poor, which would prevent toxic substances from quickly dissipating. Lithuanian environmental groups have also voiced their dislike of the project’s overall ecological impact. Sweden has raised the question that the pipeline would run too close to its marine reserve near Gotland. Finland has also been concerned that Nord Stream could interfere with important shipping routes and undersea cables and could disrupt the nature conservation area near Hogland.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland offer an alternative plan to bypass the environmental problem they see. They claim that less ecological disruption would occur if a pipeline were passed through their territories instead of under the Baltic Sea. They suggest that an onshore alternative to Nord Stream would provide the additional gas supply needed without the infrastructural and environmental complications that Nord Stream currently faces.
Nord Stream was required to comply with the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context and obtain permits certifying that the pipeline’s construction and operation would not be detrimental to the environment. It was to carry out extensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies in order to outline plans to minimize any negative consequences.

However, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland did not wish to assist the pipeline in its initial feasibility studies and seabed surveys due to the profound security risks they perceived. Yet Estonia’s letter refusing to grant the permits cited the Baltic Sea’s vulnerable environment as the formal reason. Experts also noted that Estonia’s policy was inconsistent, since the country demanded that the pipeline follow the most environmentally safe route, but did not give the company permission to research the seabed in order to find this environmentally friendly route. This approach reflects the Baltic States’ use of environmental reasons as a legitimate, seemingly diplomatic way of blocking the project. Regardless of national politicians’ and experts’ analyses, environmental considerations became the diplomatic, international face of the country’s national interests. This demonstrates that the legal framework can be appealed to most easily when using environmental protection as a leading concern.
The Nord Stream company has invested more than €100 million since 1997 in Environmental Impact Assessments and surveys of the Baltic Sea. The reports found that the pipeline would not pose significant risks to the physical environment, biological communities, and socioeconomic activities that depend on the health and safety of the sea. The munitions on the seabed will be avoided as much as possible by rerouting the pipeline, but 50 munitions will be removed to guarantee a 50-meter-wide security corridor on either side of the pipeline.

Given these positive results, and especially given the legitimacy of the process by which the scientific data was collected, it is striking that some countries and other parties continued to oppose the project on environmental grounds. In 2009, Nord Stream was approved by Denmark, Germany, Russia, and Sweden. However, it did not receive the full approval of Finland until February 2010. The reasons for the delay cannot be speculated upon, but the facts of the negotiations and the meetings between Russian and Finnish officials during that time reveal that external factors played a key role in the permit approval process.
In 2008, Russia raised the export tariffs on its raw timber to €15 per cubic meter in an effort to discourage exports and encourage its domestic processing industry. An additional increase to €50 was postponed until 2010. In late 2009, the tax was once again postponed until 2011. Since Finland imports and processes a large portion of Russian timber, the tariff increases were expected to be highly detrimental to the Finnish economy.
Finland’s economic interests and Russia’s desire to begin Nord Stream’s construction intersected at an environmental summit in Helsinki on February 10, 2010. At the summit, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reminded Finland that the construction of the pipeline depends on Finnish approval. In response, a Finnish journalist asked him if the timber tariffs were still scheduled to increase in 2011. As a response, Putin offered to maintain the current tax levels and to further postpone the €50 tax.
Strategist Chris Weafer notes that Russia’s postponement of the timber tariffs in 2009 and the promise to postpone them past 2011 have softened Finland’s view of the Nord Stream project and have been a major reason for Finland’s final approval of the pipeline later that month. The timber tariff negotiations and the debates over Nord Stream’s environmental impacts are very distinct. It is therefore intriguing that the issues were connected at the Helsinki summit. This link, and the fact that the postponement of the timber tariff came as a surprise to the Russian industry, which had been restructuring in expectation of the tariffs, suggests that the economic concessions may have been involved in the pipeline permit negotiations.

This presents an interesting aspect of international negotiations that is indicative of countries’ interests and the means they use to defend them. The environmental concerns were not quieted by the scientific findings or the adjustments to the pipeline’s infrastructure, but by outside concessions.
The inconsistency of Finland and the Baltic States suggests that even though the countries’ initial environmental concerns may have been sincere, their weight in the international negotiations was at times used as a tool to promote national economic and security interests. These cases highlight the power of environmental regulations and of the legislation that upholds them. Voicing environmental safety concerns is the main way of formally opposing a transboundary project, even when the project goes through all the necessary steps to ensure environmental safety. This transforms heated environmental debates into key negotiation tools, instrumental in promoting political and economic interests.

This does not mean that all countries have consistently used environmental questions as bargaining points, but it shows that it is difficult to disentangle the political motivations from the formal legal debates. As a result, negotiations over environmental threats may be overstated. This eventually weakens the legal framework of environmental regulation, since it becomes apparent that parties and countries may appeal to them to legitimize a concern that may be rooted in questions of influence and security.

The positive aspect of this is that there is a truly institutionalized process of obtaining environmental permits for large projects like Nord Stream. This ensures that companies must be responsible and work with affected countries and parties. However, the negative aspect emerges when one considers instances in which the legal mechanism has been abused to accommodate other types of national interests. This distorts the process and weakens its legitimacy. Environmental venues would best be used to solely protect the environment. When environmental threats are voiced to conceal other regional tensions, negotiations become less likely to produce meaningful solutions to international concerns.

The Nord Stream route as it affects surrounding countries’ territories and EEZs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

End Notes

[1] Nord Stream. 2010. “The Pipeline.” Accessed April 1, 2010; available at http://www.nord-stream.com/en/the-pipeline.html

[1] “Factbox: Russian Gas Export Pipelines, Projects.” Reuters, January 6, 2009. Accessed April 14, 2010; available at http://www.rferl.org/content/Russian_Gas_Export_Pipelines_Projects/1366873.html

[1] Fraser Cameron. 2007. “The Nord Stream Gas Pipeline Project and Its Strategic Implications: Briefing Note.” Directorate-General Internal Policies, Policy Department C, Citizens Rights and Constitutional Affairs. Brussels: European Parliament, p. 6.

[1] Robert Larsson. 2007. “Nord Stream, Sweden and Baltic Security.” Swedish Defence Research Agency: Defence Analysis. FOI-R-2251-SE, p. 40.

[1] Ibid., p. 41.

[1]Nord Stream. 2010. “Munitions.” Accessed April 1, 2010; available at http://www.nord-stream.com/en/safety-environment/munitions-survey.html

[1] “Baltic leaders issue warning over subsea pipeline.” EurActiv, Novermber 7, 2005. Accessed April 19, 2010; available at http://www.euractiv.com/en/energy/baltic-leaders-issue-warning-subsea-pipeline/article-146878

[1] Nord Stream. The Project and the Environment: The Natural Gas Pipeline Through the Baltic Sea. In Nord Stream, “Order Publications” Accessed April 18, 2010; available at http://www.nord-stream.com/en/press0/publications/order-publications.html

[1] Fraser Cameron. 2007. “The Nord Stream Gas Pipeline Project and Its Strategic Implications: Briefing Note.” Directorate-General Internal Policies, Policy Department C, Citizens Rights and Constitutional Affairs. Brussels: European Parliament, p. 5.

[1] “Baltic, Polish leaders rejuvenate Amber Gas Pipeline proposal as alternative to controversial Nord Stream.” Global Insight, February 6, 2008. Accessed April 20, 2010; available at http://www.ihsglobalinsight.com/SDA/SDADetail11482.htm

[1]United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. “Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in a Transboundary Context.” Accessed April 18, 2010; available at http://www.unece.org/env/eia/eia.htm

[1] Vladimir Socor. 2007. “Estonia will not allow the Nord Stream Pipeline on its seabed.” Eurasia Daily Monitor 4(179). Accessed April 6, 2010; available at http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=33032

[1] Fraser Cameron. 2007. “The Nord Stream Gas Pipeline Project and Its Strategic Implications: Briefing Note.” Directorate-General Internal Policies, Policy Department C, Citizens Rights and Constitutional Affairs. Brussels: European Parliament, p. 5.

[1]  Nord Stream. The Project and the Environment: The Natural Gas Pipeline Through the Baltic Sea. In Nord Stream, “Order Publications” Accessed April 18, 2010; available at http://www.nord-stream.com/en/press0/publications/order-publications.html

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] “Nord Stream gas project gets German approval.” Commodity Online, December 29, 2009. Accessed April 4, 2010; available at http://www.commodityonline.com/news/Nord-Stream-gas-project-gets-German-approval-24259-3-1.html

[1] Anna Shiryaevskaya. 2009. “Nord Stream gets approval to build gas pipeline through Russia.” Bloomberg, December 18, 2009. Accessed April 4, 2010; available at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601072&sid=aP4jD6OLUqtM

[1] Anna Arutunyan. 2010. “Nord Stream: Further agreement in the gas pipeline for Finland and Russia.” The Moscow News, February 22, 2010. Accessed April 4, 2010; available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/russianow/business/7293128/Nord-Stream-further-agreement-in-the-gas-pipeline-for-Finland-and-Russia.html

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Nord Stream. 2009.  Nord Stream Environmental Impact Assessment: Documentation for Consultation under the Espoo Convention. p. 5.

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Marina Stefanova is a student at Georgetown University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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