Nord Stream, a joint German-Russian project which will place a natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, has been caught in a cross wind.
While high-level support blows the project forward from the rear, bureaucracies are using environmental impact considerations as a way to create a political headwind against the project.
An international protocol of environmental impact assessment in border areas (The Espoo Convention), gives all the countries whose territorial waters the pipeline crosses the right to veto the project if their assessment of its environmental impact is negative.
When it comes to Nord Stream, Sweden, Germany, Finland, and Denmark, all have a say in whether the project moves forward.
All the other Nordic countries, as well as Germany, have supported Nord Stream, with Finland’s former prime minister serving as spokesperson for the project. Finland’s current prime minister, Mr. Matti Vanhanen, voiced his support publicly last month by saying that “on the European level, the Baltic Sea gas pipeline will yield one new route to increase energy security.”
However, Swedish opposition to the project appears to have spread to Finnish bureaucrats, who have joined efforts to complicate the environmental impact assessment process.
Denmark, who already had a disagreement with Sweden about the safety of a nuclear plant in Barsebäck, just 20 kilometres from the Danish capital, would naturally want the pipeline to provide a safer alternative to nuclear energy.
The fragile environment of the Baltic Sea makes care a rational choice for any project whose environmental impact is not entirely known. This is why caution on the part of the Swedes is easy to justify politically.
In the beginning Sweden based its reservations on the existence, deep down on the seabed of the Baltic Sea near the islands of Gotland and Bornholm, of wrecks from the Second World War filled with chemical agents from illegal Nazi weapons. If these wrecks were disturbed by the process of laying down the pipes, it could be a major disaster, Sweden argued.
However, Sweden, along with the other members of the so-called Helsinki Commission, an organization of states around the Baltic Sea working to protect its marine environment, contributed to studies that have revealed these wrecks are not a threat to the ecology of the sea.
Furthermore, the planned route of the pipes was changed by the contractors so that they would never come closer than two kilometres to the wrecks. And, finally, Sweden has endorsed a decision by Denmark and Poland to build a similar pipeline between each other.
Clearly the reason for Swedish objection to Nord Stream has not been environmental but political. And this inability to reveal ones cards has irritated officials in Denmark and elsewhere in the Baltic Sea region.
Sweden might not have the same problems with its carbon emissions as other countries, thus reducing its need for more sources of cleaner energy. But Denmark, which has had tremendous difficulties satisfying its commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, would certainly appreciate decisions making it less costly to stick to energy policies which are harmonized with environmental priorities. But if Sweden continues its unilateral veto of the Baltic Sea natural gas pipeline, Denmark’s ability to climate-friendly goals may be jeopardized.
If we then conclude that Sweden’s objections are not environmental but political, then perhaps it is possible to justify their opposition on those grounds.
Surely, there are good political reasons to object to growing dependence of the European Union (EU) on Russian energy supply. But unfortunately, all the alternative pipelines that the EU currently uses also originate from Russia.
The Nord Stream pipeline would simply complement and offer an alternative to pipelines from Russia which pass through several other countries. Rejecting this pipeline, therefore, will not mean a “no” to dependence on Russia, but instead, it will mean dependence on Russia and all the transit countries.
As a result, Europe could run the risk of going cold from a lack of Russian gas, not only because of a conflict with Russia, but also in case that any of the transit countries, such as Ukraine, have a conflict with Russia. This is something we should have learned by now.
The only viable option to dependence on Russia or the Middle Eastern tyrannies is alternative energy production. This is where Finland and others should follow Sweden – not in Sweden’s foolishness vis-à-vis the Nord Stream pipeline.
The issue of dependence on Russian gas should also be seen from an alternative perspective. The fear of Russia cutting supplies is more likely in a scenario where it simply becomes clear to Russia’s leaders that China is a more reliable buyer than the EU. Due to its phenomenal growth, China (and India) stands for almost half of words increase in energy consumption.
At the same time, as a recently completed study commissioned by the Finnish Foreign Ministry shows, China is serious about developing an institutional network that could monopolize the central Asian and Russian energy resources for its use, at the expense of the Europeans.
This development will one day result in a situation where Europeans will no longer have access to Russian gas – not because of a political blackmail, but simply because Russia found a better buyer elsewhere. This is the scenario we should be concerned about.
Energy investments that help push that day further off into the future would be clever energy policies, such as the search for energy alternatives from bioenergy. But closing options and conditioning European energy supply on many instead of just a few conditions is not rational no matter how one looks at it. Nord Stream is part of rational risk management; emotional reactions against Russia are not.
Timo Kivimäki is a Finnish researcher based at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen.