Resistance to a planned Russian gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea is growing in Europe. Sweden is especially uneasy about the project. Besides environmental concerns, some Swedish politicians fear it may be used for spying.
Swedes are worried the pipeline could stir up toxins on the ocean floor
Gotland is a small island in the central Baltic Sea, just 150 kilometers (93 miles) off the Swedish mainland. Known for its white beaches, this idyllic island is slowly but surely becoming better known for a more recent legacy: its opposition to the Russian gas pipeline project.
Nord Stream, a Russian-German consortium, is planning to build a 1,200 kilometer-long pipeline that will satisfy Europe's growing demand for natural gas, courtesy of Russian energy giant Gazprom. Starting 2010, the pipeline is expected to pump natural gas from Russia through the Baltic Sea to a location near Greifswald in northern Germany.
"The pipeline is going to go directly along the coast of Gotland," said Asa Andersson of the Swedish World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "The environmental impact is questionable. Nord Stream has to address all possible scenarios. So far, this has been neglected."
Andersson said other routes through the Baltic, possibly along previously established pipeline paths, should be examined.
Environmental assessment underway
Nord Stream is currently conducting an environmental impact assessment for the project. The consortium said it plans to present its final report to the various national authorities this fall.
Schröder has long been a proponent for the gas pipeline
While a country has the right to impose additional requirements it doubts pipeline's environmental safety, only states whose Germany, Russia, Finland, Denmark and Sweden have the ability to veto the project. Other neighboring countries, such as Poland or the Baltic States, are entitled to hear the report, but have no veto powers.
"All sensitive points are being carefully reviewed," said the chairman of the shareholder’s board on Wednesday in Brussels. He is Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany who enjoyed friendly ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Criticism from all angles
Despite the former chancellor's assurances, the mega-project has been met by criticism from all sides.
Swedish environmental groups are especially concerned that the pipeline passes too closely along the marine reserve near Gotland. They say the construction work could stir up toxins long dormant at the bottom of the seaand harm the flora and fauna living in the waters surrounding the Swedish island. Gotland's local fisheries also fear the pipeline could interfere with their fishing nets.
But the greatest concern is over tons of chemical weapons left over from World War II at the bottom of the sea.
Some are nervous pipeline explosions, other of espionage
"The munitions are a high security risk," Andersson said, adding that explosions could easily set free dangerous chemicals.
Nord Stream, however, said the explosives would not be a danger to the pipeline and that engineers are systematically scanning the seabed along the 1,200-kilometer long route.
"We are familiar with the storage sites for these munitions," Nord Stream spokeman Jens Müller said. "The pipeline will not run in their vicinity."
Ecological, political fears
Christian Dahlke, division head at the Office of Maritime Traffic and Hydrography, the federal agency that assesses Nord Stream's environmental report for Germany, said there is little reason for concern once the pipeline is built.
"Gazprom has grasped that this project has to be carried out along European guidelines," he said. "There weren’t any problems with pipelines in the North Sea."
Poland is afraid its supply of Russian gas could be cut off in the future
But that hasn't stopped several German environmental groups from joining their Swedish and Finnish counterparts in opposing the pipeline. Warsaw has also come out against the plan, fearing Moscow could cuts gas deliveries to Poland in the future. If built, the pipeline could supply up to 25 percent of Europe's natural gas supplies by 2015.
Sweden's national security concerns
The pipeline has also become a security issue for the Swedes. Several Swedish politicians, from both the governing party and opposition, have publicly expressed concern that Russian intelligence agencies could abuse the pipeline project for renewed espionage activities along Sweden's coast.
Dehlke, however, said that murky security concerns are unlikely to be enough to nix the project.
"There have to be serious reasons, say in the area of environmental protection, for rejecting the project," he said. "The window for that is very tight."