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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump will try to resolve a disagreement over a proposed $12 billion Russian pipeline under the Baltic Sea when they meet April 27 at the White House.
The Nord Stream 2 (NS2) project, owned by the Russian oil monopoly Gazprom, has been at the center of a growing political and environmental standoff in recent months.
Backers of the pipeline view it as a key piece of infrastructure that could supply the European Union with a stream of cheaper, cleaner energy decades to come.
But opponents—including the U.S.—claim it would isolate Central European allies who depend on transit fees collected from existing pipeline infrastructure.
Environmentalists also point to the risks associated with building a massive gas pipeline through a sensitive and vulnerable ecosystem—one that also happens to be littered with unexploded bombs from WWII.
“The NS2 project is a bad deal for climate policy, will threaten the fragile ecosystem of the Baltic Sea, and undermine solidarity and trust in the European Union,” according to an open letter the World Wildlife Fund and NABU, a German environmental non-profit, sent to Merkel.
The 800-mile proposed pipeline, if allowed to proceed, would complement the existing Nord Stream 1 line—laid in 2011—with two extra lines, effectively consolidating 80 percent of Russian gas coming into the EU into a single infrastructure corridor.
The project is deeply controversial, especially in Germany, where the final leg would be buried under the seabed as a safeguard against the busy coastal shipping channel.
Environmental groups say such a widespread dredging project would come with steep ecological costs.
“We’re talking about some 2.5 billion tons of sediment that would have to be moved,” said Anne Boehnke-Henrichs, a marine conservation policy specialist at NABU. “As well as the ongoing possibility of a potentially disastrous leak.”
In addition to concerns about leaks and dredging, Boehnke-Henrichs told Bloomberg Environment the pipeline would cut across four sea zones that are protected under the EU’s Habitats and Birds Directive.
The areas are supposed to be shielded by “regulations that protect threatened species such as the harbor porpoise, as well critical habitat such as seagrass meadows and marl reefs.”
In March, the German government approved permits allowing construction on the pipeline to begin as early as May. NABU is suing to block the move, alleging that environmental impact data are incomplete and construction conflicts with the protection goals of affected areas.
Others point out that construction along the seabed runs a real risk of disturbing bombs, sea mines, chemical munitions, and other toxic substances that were dumped into the Baltic Sea after the second World War.
According to data compiled by the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission—also known as the Helsinki Commission—nearly 300,000 tons of chemical weapons were recovered after the war, the majority of which was disposed of in the Baltic and North Seas.
“Things like TNT, nerve gases like tabun, mustard gas, adamsite, as well as ‘blood agents’ including Zyklon B, which was used in the death camps,“ said Hans Sanderson, a scientist studying the environmental impacts of munitions dumping, at Aarhus University in Denmark.
As much as 55,000 tons chemical munitions, and 11,000 tons of explosives were dumped just off the coast of the Danish Island of Bornholm, which is directly in the path of the NS2 pipeline, Sanderson said.
Bornholm fisherman regularly bring up old bombs in their nets.
After 80 years, Sanderson said the risk of explosion is likely very low, and sediment samples taken at dump sites show low concentrations of chemicals. But further study is needed to determine what the best mitigation strategy might be.
“These are chemical weapons, and therefore not something you can just bring into your lab and ask students to work on,” he said.
“We need more, and better data—especially as it relates to chronic and long-term effects, indirect effects, and cascading effects in ecosystems.”
Nord Stream 2 AG is a Swiss-based company charged with planning, construction, and operating the gas pipeline. Gazprom is still the majority owner.
In addition to being the most direct route to bring gas into the EU, the company claims the experience gained from the previous Nord Stream 1 shows the risks from environmental groups are unfounded.
“The first Nord Stream project was the most extensive survey of the Baltic Sea that has ever been conducted,” said Jens Mueller, a spokesman for Nord Stream 2 AG.
Mueller told Bloomberg Environment that more than 100 munitions were cleared for the first project, and subsequent environmental monitoring has shown that impacts were very low.
“Nord Stream 2’s approach to munitions follows international best practice and is closely aligned with the relevant authorities,” he said.
In addition to Germany, the pipeline also would pass through the territorial waters of Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. Germany and Finland have issued permits, and Mueller said the company expects to have the remaining permits in hand in the coming months.
The NS2 pipeline has also become a major geopolitical factor among groups that view it as simply an infrastructure project and those concerned about overreliance on an increasingly belligerent Russian government.
“Now is not time to reward the Kremlin and Gazprom. If gas is diverted away from Ukraine, Russia would have a free hand in Central Europe,” said Agnia Grigas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.
In addition to being a severe economic blow to Western allies, Grigas said the move could undercut existing sanctions from both the EU and U.S. aimed at punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
In a shift from her previous position that NS2 was a purely “economic project,” Merkel amended her position to include political concerns.
“I made very clear that a Nord Stream 2 project is impossible without clarity on the future transit role of Ukraine,” Merkel said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Berlin on April 10.
But others point to the fact that even during the Cold War, Europe purchased energy from the Soviet Union, and it would be better to have a relationship with Russia than to risk unintended consequences.
“I believe the best thing for energy security is to have as many routes available as possible,” said Friedbert Pflueger, director of the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security at King’s College in London.
Speaking at a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council, Pflueger highlighted the urgent need to diversify away from coal-powered energy, as well as Germany’s decision to stop using nuclear power completely by 2022.
“Everyone who comes to us with new gas is good. We are not trying to reinvent the Cold War,” he said.
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