The Nord Stream 2 Tug of War

Caught Between Two Gas Giants

Nord Stream 2 is going ahead. Last Wednesday, after two and a half years of delay, Denmark’s government gave permission for a section of the natural gas pipeline to pass through its exclusive economic zone in the Baltic Sea. 

Securing this permission was the final hurdle to completing the 1,225-kilometre undersea pipeline which runs from Ust-Luga in Russia’s Leningrad Region to Greifswald on Germany’s Baltic coast. 

When it becomes operational next spring, Nord Stream 2 and its predecessor, which was opened in 2011, could double the capacity of Russian natural gas deliveries to Europe to 110 billion cubic metres.

While the pipeline itself belongs to Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom, roughly half of the eight billion euros spent on its construction was provided by five European companies: Germany’s Uniper and Wintershall, Austria’s OMV, France’s Engie, and Anglo-Dutch Shell.

With those names, it’s no surprise that powerful players in Berlin are fully on board. The project is even managed by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

But given the fact that oil and gas revenue comprises around 40% of Russia’s state budget, opponents of the project argue that such a large deal with Gazprom can never be strictly about business.

Russia already provides nearly 40% of the EU’s natural gas imports, a fact which makes Nord Stream 2’s critics argue that diversification is a necessity in order to avoid Moscow’s political clout growing with its gas sales. 

That fact is keenly felt in Central and Eastern Europe. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has declared that the pipeline could “weaken Europe and strengthen Russia” partly for political concerns and partly due to fears that the pipeline will allow Russia to bypass Eastern European transit states, depriving them of lucrative transit fees. 

 Chancellor Angela Merkel’s promises to continue purchasing gas via Ukraine has not assuaged these fears.

With a backstory like this, it is no surprise that geopolitics has dominated much of the public discussion of Nord Stream 2 in Europe. But behind headline-grabbing stories of “Putin’s pipeline” is a broader story about the future of pipelines in general, and the role played by natural gas in Europe’s lacklustre attempts to move away from fossil fuels.

In fact, besides the protesters who were arrested in May after climbing inside NS2’s pipes at Wrangelsberg, the pipeline does not appear to feature much in Germany’s burgeoning climate movement. 

There are no posters and placards against NS2 at Fridays for Future marches. Yet the discussion of NS2’s environmental impact is no less highly charged — and the stakes no less important.

Last month, the German government passed a new climate package which aims to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to 55% of the 1990 level by 2030. It followed decisions in January to close all the country’s coal-fired power plants over the next 19 years.

This is the context in which Nord Stream 2 representatives have made a concerted effort to promote the pipeline’s environmental credentials, arguing that burning natural gas produces approximately half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal.

Their arguments are well-timed. While the EU’s demand for natural gas is rising, nearby Norway is stepping down its production and exports. Meanwhile, the Dutch government recently announced that it would cease all production at the Groningen onshore gas field, Europe’s largest, by 2022 — eight years earlier than initially scheduled. 

These factors, combined with high energy prices and high costs for subsidising renewable energy sources, make cheap natural gas an attractive option in Germany. But from whom?

In 2017, the United States became a net natural gas exporter for the first time in 60 years. In the first six months of 2019, its exports of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, has doubled since the same period last year. Germany presented an ideal market. However, Nord Stream 2’s spokesman Jens Müller sees the import of American LNG to Germany as no alternative to Russian gas. 

“Every climate target will be illusory without more gas in the energy mix. If there is more gas, it shouldn’t be fracked or transported with an ineffective method of liquefaction; the difference in carbon dioxide emissions between NS2’s transport and the same amount of US LNG is equal to the annual emissions of Slovakia: 40 million tonnes,” Mr. Müller told The Battleground in an email exchange.

Kirsten Westphal, a senior research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, argues that Berlin’s decarbonisation drive has become entwined in a tug of war between the American and Russian gas lobbies and geopolitical concerns.

“Where you do see a split [in Germany] is between the purely energy and economics focused elite, which argues very pragmatically with regards to commercial issues and natural gas, including access to gas from Russia, and the foreign and security policy elite which have in the past been very outspoken against the project, and argue for US LNG instead,” explained Westphal, who has written extensively about European energy politics and argued that American LNG could be too expensive to undercut the costs of Russian pipeline gas to the European market. 

This has not deterred Poland, the United States, and Ukraine from recently teaming up to secure greater imports of US LNG to Eastern Europe. Speaking in Warsaw this May, US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry stated that despite its expense, American “freedom gas” could become competitive with Nord Stream 2 if exported in bulk. 

Perry added that Washington intends to double its LNG export capacity to Europe to 112 billion cubic metres per annum in 2020 — just over the volume provided by Nord Stream 1 and 2.

But environmentalists’ criticism of Nord Stream 2 has also focused, as it does with any pipeline, on concerns about the viability and long term use of such an immense infrastructural project, as well as the ecological consequences of its construction.

NABU, an environmental NGO based in the German capital, claims that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline poses a great risk to five Natura 2000 protected sites in the country’s coastal waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Baltic Sea. 

Anne Böhnke-Henrichs, NABU’s consultant for marine conservation, told The Battleground during an interview in a central Berlin cafe, that she and her colleagues believe the process of dredging the seabed for the pipeline has disturbed marine habitats and that the period of recovery will take longer than claimed by Nord Stream 2 in its planning application. 

In 2018, the NGO filed a lawsuit against Nord Stream 2 alleging, among other claims, that the company’s environmental impact assessment was incomplete.

Böhnke-Henrichs says that in some areas, the pipeline’s 50km long undersea trench is up to 80 metres wide, and required 2.5 million cubic metres of sediments to be dredged. This process, she says, poses the risk of eutrophication.

“Due to the nutrients stored in that sediment, the dredging mobilises about 250 tonnes of phosphorus, which fuels algae blooms in the Baltic Sea. When the algae sink to the seafloor, they biodegrade and consume large amounts of oxygen, creating so-called anoxic or ‘dead zones’ in the sea,” she explained. 

Böhnke-Henrichs added that while there appears to be a correlation with undersea construction, there is “as yet no clear way to prove that these events are related to a specific infrastructure project”.

“Our perspective is that the condition of the Baltic Sea is so poor that we just have to avoid any additional pressure on this ecosystem,” concluded Böhnke-Henrichs. “At some point, we have to say ‘that’s enough’. Because we are already failing to achieve targets demanded by three environmental frameworks for the preservation of marine habitats.”

Jens Müller, NS2’s press spokesman, responded that while he could not comment on ongoing legal procedures, the German construction permits were part of a comprehensive planning process dating back to 2017. 

“Nord Stream’s thorough calculations demonstrated that construction of the first pipeline would result in a release of nutrients equivalent to approximately 00.4 per cent of nitrogen and 0.2 per cent of phosphorus of the average yearly total input into the Baltic Sea,” he added.

Criticism of the pipeline’s environmental repercussions also concerns its landfall in Russia, where the pipe passes through the Kurgalsky Nature Reserve on the Baltic Sea coast. 

One panel, at a conference about NS2 organised in Berlin by a network of Russian opposition activists on 10 October, focused on the reserve’s fate. 

Yevgeniya Chirikova, director of Activatica, an Estonia-based project focused on grassroots activism in Russia, claimed in an interview on the sidelines of the conference that NS2’s use of sophisticated micro tunnelling technologies on the German landfall,  compared to a conventional pipeline tunnel on the Russian side, showed double standards are at play. 

Chikirova also stressed the importance of what are allegedly secret minutes published by Greenpeace Austria purporting to show Russian government members and representatives of NS2 debating boundary changes of the nature reserve.

In contrast, NS2’s documentation about the pipeline’s landfall in Russia stresses that the pipeline has been driven through the narrowest, 3.7-kilometre section of the Kurgalsky Nature Reserve with a lower concentration of rare flora and fauna. It had been driven through the narrowest possible section of the reserve’s boundaries to reduce damage.

“Pulling pipelines through a micro-tunnel is a proven technology for a 700 metre stretch such as in Germany, but could create risks for a distance of approximately three kilometres like at the Russian landfall; trenchbox technology is the most effective way for minimising impact there,” explained Müller.

For the German politician Rebecca Harms, a former member of the European Parliament and president of the European Greens, a key criticism of Nord Stream 2 is tied to energy consumption patterns in Russia. 

In short, she stressed during an interview in Berlin, climate change does not happen in a vacuum. What might assist Germany to lower its carbon dioxide emissions might not be the case in Russia. 

“An important part of this debate is that while we think we are helping the environment by shifting from coal to gas here, we are contributing to the increased use of coal, and relatively dirty coal, in Russia. It’s not by chance that so many environmentalists from Russia have had to flee the country and seek asylum in the European Union,” said Harms.

“Thirty per cent of our population in Russia lives without gas; while we sell our own gas to Germany, we use more coal at home, so as an overall result, the situation is worse. While they talk about ‘energy replacement’ in Germany, nobody talks about it in Russia. Putin plans to mine even more coal and he’s said so openly. If Germany refused gas entirely and opted for green technology, Russians would not use the coal which is so awful for the climate, but gas,” says Chirikova.

“The best thing, of course, would be to use renewable energy but that’s risky to advocate for in Russia,” she added. Whether there is a direct causal effect between gas exports and burning of poor quality coal in Russia is still a matter of some debate, given the existence of a gas surplus.

“In Germany Gazprom have the advantage due to the first energy transition debates we had with the demand to phase out nuclear power. When we started, and the technology of renewables and ideas of huge dimensions of efficiency at the beginning, gas was always part of the transition scenarios,” admits Harms. “We observe that climate targets are not met. We know that there is a need to phase out gas as a fossil fuel much quicker than we had anticipated.”   

“It’s one thing to block roads and bridges, but as an old anti-nuclear campaigner and activist, which is how I started in my political life, I can say that the success of the anti-nuclear movement in Germany started when we were able to present alternatives. For the moment, the language of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future is very general, mostly about global CO2 emissions, but it provides the perfect opportunity to have those debates,” Harms concluded.

Whoever gets to supply natural gas to Europe, it is clear that the continent needs post-fossil fuel alternatives. While natural gas can indeed play an important role in any transition away from coal, burning natural gas must also become a thing of the past if Europe is to meet its obligations before the Paris Climate Accords for the complete decarbonisation of its economy. 

Some experts wonder whether investing in such an immense infrastructure project defers the need to make fossil fuels a thing of the past to an ever-receding future; a criticism which has also become common against pipeline projects in North America. 

As the German energy expert Claudia Kemfert writes, the role of Nord Stream 2 in this scenario could be to “reduce market flexibility… and for decades tie it to comparatively expensive gas imports […] The construction of such a pipeline will hinder the switch to renewable energies and cost consumers dearly”.

Just as fossil fuel emissions do not know borders, neither does Nord Stream 2 end with landfall at the Kurgalsky Nature Reserve. The pipeline draws much of its resources from the gas fields of the Yamal Peninsula in northern Russia, which together with Western Siberia can supply between 130 and 150 billion cubic metres of gas every year.

For several years now, studies have shown that the majority of fossil fuels need to be left in the ground to meet climate change targets. The prospects for natural gas are better. But over 50% of the world’s known reserves still need to remain in the ground, regardless of who pumps them out. 

But even while consensus builds that everything must change, some habits die hard. Four days ago, Germany gave permission for another coal-fired power plant at Datteln-4 to open. Extinction Rebellion has already announced protests.

Photograph courtesy of Jürgen Mangelsdorf. Published under a Creative Commons license.