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The Nord Stream natural gas pipeline sits on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The route poses an environmental risk, but some say it's worth it. German and Russian activists weigh in on the pros and cons of the venture.
Gas is now flowing through the Nord Stream pipeline
Gas isn't exactly an environmentalist's favorite source of energy. It's a fossil fuel that releases the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for warming the climate.
Crucially, however, it releases far fewer emissions than coal.
Even the environmental organization Greenpeace accepts that gas will play a vital role in Germany's efforts to wean itself from coal and shift to a clean energy economy by mid century.
"For that reason, it's positive for us," said Greenpeace's Tobias Münchmeyer of the Nord Stream gas pipeline.
Münchmeyer is more concerned about the pipeline's ecological footprint than the familiar political debates about whose territory the pipeline uses – or avoids.
"In our view, it doesn't make a difference whether a pipeline runs through countries where transit fees may occur, or whether it runs through a neutral area such as the Baltic Sea. The main thing is that the ecological impact shouldn't be too large."
Initially, environmental groups were dubious of the new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. They even brought a case before the courts.
Tons of soft sediment needed to be dug up for canals to lay the pipe during construction. The original plan was to dump this sediment into the Baltic, which could have led impacted severely on marine life on the sea floor.
"At the beginning of 2010, we challenged the permission to dump this material into the water," said Jochen Lamp from the Baltic Sea office of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Greifswald.
The land route was not without its share of problems
The sediments ended up being stored on land, and the case against Nord Stream was withdrawn.
"Over the course of this project, we realized that Gazprom and the consortium were willing to learn and engage with the concerns of environmentalists," said Greenpeace's Münchmeyer.
The environmental impact to the Baltic Sea is, in the case of Nord Stream, justifiable, according to Münchmeyer.
"There are completely different projects, from similar companies but also from Gazprom, that we consider very ecologically questionable," he added, giving the pipelines from Russia to China through the Altai region or the Russian South Stream project through the Black Sea as examples.
Chemical weapon legacy
Russian environmental organizations were most concerned about chemical weapons that were disposed in the Baltic at the end of World War II said Alexander Nikitin, head of the St. Petersburg office of the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona.
Nord Stream's press spokesman Jens Müller said the situation was carefully examined.
The water route was ultimately chosen
"Boats covered more than 40,000 kilometers of the Baltic looking into this," he said. "We used new technology to identify more than 3,000 metal objects on the bottom of the Baltic Sea along our route."
Eighty sea mines were removed as a result, and there were no problems with munitions along the path of the pipeline, Müller said.
Nikitin believes that should something actually go wrong with the pipeline, the effects would be difficult to predict. Nord Stream officials say that if the pipeline were to be damaged, only methane would be released into the atmosphere.
"The steel and concrete casing around the pipeline would reduce the risk to sinking ships and really large anchors," said Nord Stream's Müller. "We avoided laying the pipeline through shipping lanes as much as possible."
Need for constant environmental monitoring
All told, Nord Stream invested more than 100 million euro ($138 million) in the planning and examination of the route.
"Monitoring will continue during operation so more accurate information about the impact of the pipeline on the Baltic Sea can be collected," Müller said.
However, environmental groups say the pipeline will still impact the sea's fragile ecosystem, despite the protection measures.
"The Baltic Sea is flat and small. It must be handled especially carefully," said Bellona's Nikitin. WWF's Lamp also believes that the impact of the construction of the pipeline will continue to be felt for years.
Author: Viacheslav Yurin / Markian Ostaptschuk / mz
Editor: Nathan Witkop