Nord Stream 2 poses major environmental threat to Baltic Sea

The Danish Energy Agency has granted Nord Stream 2 AG permission to build part of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in its waters on the country's continental shelf southeast of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. This opens the way for the project to continue, with completion expected next year.

But is this really in Europe’s best interests, and is it intellectually coherent to be investing in this, as we prepare to tackle the climate crisis by reducing our addiction to all fossil fuels?

Nord Stream 2 was always a political project from the very start, which has nothing to do with the stability of Russian gas supplies to Europe 

The latest developments suggest that environmentalists' concerns about the threats to ecology both during construction and operation are being rode over rough shod.

The new gas pipeline will be over 1,200-km long with a throughput capacity of 110 billion cubic meters for both Nord Stream pipelines. The scale of the project implies that in the course of its implementation, it will be difficult to comply with all environmental safety standards. Particularly since the pipeline's route involves construction through "danger zones" in the Baltic Sea where chemical weapons have been dumped more than sixty years ago.

The issue was first raised by international environmental organisations back in 2018. But, all attempts to halt the project through court action have failed. In March 2018, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation rejected a lawsuit by Greenpeace Russia to block the construction as the alignment passed through a protected natural area in the Kurgalsky Reserve, Leningrad Region. In June 2018, the Supreme Administrative Court of the German city of Greifswald overruled a complaint lodged by a German environmental NGO urging a halt to the pipeline construction in Germany's Lubmin coastal resort. 

The court rulings both in Russia and Germany found in favour of the political and economic arguments, and decided that these outweighed possible threats, which could emerge during construction, to flora and fauna in the Baltic Sea and the Russian eco-system.

The last country which tried to stop the project on environmental grounds was Denmark, where laying gas pipelines in its territorial waters is acknowledged to be extremely dangerous. After World War II the Soviet Union sank at least four vessels with some 15,000 tonnes of chemical munitions. In the area east of Bornholm Island, the Soviet fleet dumped some 8,000 tonnes of chemical munitions, and no charts exist to show their location.

All WWII Allies dumped chemical munitions confiscated from the German Wehrmacht, in several areas in the western part of the Baltic Sea and in the straits, which makes it easier to monitor their condition. But off Denmark's coasts, it is impossible to determine the current state of semi-decomposed munitions since no one knows for sure where they are located.

The situation is aggravated by two circumstances: the "warranty period" of 60 years is over, so munitions could well be depressurised by now, plus their chaotic drifting along the seabed – sometimes cases with mines get washed ashore in Sweden or make up a dangerous catch for local fishermen.

The most hazardous of the chemical warfare agents dumped in the area is mustard gas, an extremely toxic substance, affecting wildlife and causing mutations in fish as a result of the leaks from depressurised shells.

So why was the permit for Nord Stream 2 issued by the Danish Energy Agency despite the concerns of environmental NGOs? The Danish Energy Agency has said that it took the step in accordance with the Law on the Continental Shelf and based on Denmark’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, after considering all the environmental, economic, technical, and legal aspects.

It is clear that despite all the environmental evidence tabled, none of the concerns for safety of the Baltic Sea marine environment will be taken into account. But in the event of an ecological disaster, it will be Denmark and Sweden that will suffer the most. 

The work on the pipeline's final stage has not yet started as the Danish permit is yet to enter into force, but the Nord Stream 2 operator will be able to use it from 8th December. 

Legislation still allows all parties to file a complaint within the next four weeks to the decision. But this is probably Europe’s last chance to decide what is more important for its citizens, protection of the marine environment of the Baltic Sea for future generations, or an abandonment of any serious EU commitment to tackling climate change? 

We are ten minutes past midnight; but it is not too late to start putting the environment first, wean Europeans off their addiction to fossil fuels and stop all unnecessary investment into infrastructure for increasing the capacity for the distribution of gas. Nord Stream 2 is a political project that cannot be justified in terms of actual and future demand for gas in Europe. If we are serious about taking real action to prevent the planet’s climate crisis, Nord Stream 2 must be stopped.

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James Wilson

James Wilson

James Wilson is a Founding Director of the International Foundation for Better Governance. He is a long term resident of Brussels, has more than 30 years international business experience in public affairs and corporate communications, and is a regular contributor to EU Today.

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