The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to create an additional gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, has been challenged time and time again since the idea of its inception was introduced to the global stage. In 2015, demand for gas in Europe hit a 4-year high while internal gas production steadily declined, putting pressure on European governments to seek new fuel alternatives. In regards to the pipeline, many are concerned with the idea of a single entity monopolizing the European gas market. Others speculate that Russia is plotting to weaken the Ukrainian economy, given that the pipeline would cost $2 billion in losses for Ukraine by forfeiting the transit taxes they currently collect (1). Few, however, have acknowledged the environmental impacts that would be caused by the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. From sediment relocation to the possibility of a leak, the environmental threats are present and dangerous.
During the initial construction of the Nord Stream Pipeline 1, proponents of the pipeline celebrated when one of the largest non-governmental environmental organizations, Greenpeace, shed a positive light on the project as a step away from coal towards cleaner energy. The introduction of the second pipeline, however, has resulted in backlash from environmentalists. Both the first pipeline and the proposed second pipeline run from Russia through the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, ending at a German Gaspool hub in Greifswald (2). With mounting concerns over harming the Baltic Sea, Gazprom—the company in charge of the project—faces many challenges. In 2005, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden adopted the International Maritime Organization’s resolution A.982(24), which created new guidelines for the identification and designation of Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSA) (3). During the construction of the first pipeline, environmentalists filed a lawsuit regarding the relocation of the sediment dug up from trenches to make space for the pipeline. When Gazprom announced that the sediment would be stored on land and not left in the ocean, the lawsuit was dropped. Unfortunately, however, Gazprom has no intention of retaining these measures for the second pipeline.
In the Nord Stream Espoo Report, a section titled “seabed intervention works” states that “due to the seabed conditions in the Baltic Sea, seabed intervention works are required at certain locations before and after pipe-lay to ensure that the pipelines have a stable foundation on the seabed.” (4) Conditions include avoiding placing stress on the pipeline, avoiding excess movement of the pipeline due to waves, and avoiding conflict with shipping lanes. The report goes on to outline plans for trenching, pre-lay, post-lay, backfilling of trenches, rock placement, and building underwater support structures. What is not noted in the report, however, are the detrimental consequences of such activity on marine life.
In the post-lay phase of the project, the report requires that the sediment dug up underneath the pipeline be left adjacent to the pipeline itself. Additionally, it states that artificial backfilling of post-lay trenches would be required in some areas to prevent unevenness. What the report ignores, however, is the potential environmental damage of discarding piles of sediment in the ocean. As ocean water ebbs and flows, the sediment piles will flatten over time, but will carry with them the artificial sediment introduced as backfill in the post-laying process. Although the areas in which the pipeline would be built are distant from shipping lanes to avoid crashes, those areas are abundant with marine life. By spreading a mix of Baltic sediment and artificial sediment, the pipeline could severely endanger an already sensitive marine ecosystem.
To make matters worse, the report calls for rock placement near Russia, Finland and Sweden, where the seabed is considered to be rough. This same practice was used during the installation of the first pipeline, and the withstanding results varied. According to a scientific report, “the greatest impact on water quality was caused by rock placement”(5). Although the impacts, measured in Nephelometric Turbidity Units (NTU’s), were considered local and short-term, the numbers themselves are staggering. In the area where impacts for the first pipeline were measured, normal turbidity levels sit anywhere between 0-5 NTU’s. During the rock placement of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, the turbidity level spiked significantly, reaching up to 54 NTU’s. The effect of this drastic change on local wildlife was never recorded. However, a 1964 study titled “A Literature Review of the Effects of Turbidity and Siltation on Aquatic Life” provides an accurate picture of what might have occurred. The study found that as artificial sediment was introduced, the outermost layer of organisms’ embryos attracted the suspended sediment, which began to cover the eggs. All of the early-developed ova used in the experiment died before even hatching due to restriction of oxygen from falling sediment (6). The experiment was then extended to developed larvae, which all died within six days of being introduced to the sediment.
In sum, the movement of existing sediment and introduction of artificial sediment to different regions is extremely dangerous to marine life. Although concerns during the implementation of the first pipeline prompted Gazprom to store unearthed sediment on land, the plans for the second pipeline discard this practice. We have reached out to Greenpeace to see if they would file a lawsuit on the sediment replacement for the second pipeline, but we are awaiting a response.
In addition to its effects on marine life, another significant environmental impact that the pipeline poses is the release of methane gas into the atmosphere. According to a recent report (7), Nord Stream officials stated that damage to the pipeline would release “only” methane. Despite this understatement, a risk assessment made public by Nord Stream shows how severe a methane leak could really be. The report states that on average, the volume of gas in the pipeline could reach 210 million cubic meters of gas (8), or about 148,000 tons worth. Due to methane’s extremely low solubility, a leak or explosion would cause the methane to rise to the atmosphere, causing astronomical damage. According to a 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, methane is 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide in terms of heat trapping (9). This means that 1 ton of methane released into the atmosphere is the equivalent of 34 tons of damage. Therefore, when calculated in its potential to increase global warming, 148,000 tons of methane released into the atmosphere from the pipeline is the equivalent of 5,032,000 tons of carbon dioxide. This single event encompasses 10% of Denmark or Sweden’s annual emissions, according to the report.
Earlier this year, Vice President Joe Biden referred to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a “bad deal” for Europe. He sees the pipeline as a way for Russia to weaken Ukraine by cutting off the tax revenue that they are able to collect from current practices. The politics tied to the construction of the pipeline merely scratch the surface as to why the pipeline is a bad idea for the European nations involved. Politics aside, the European nations involved in the pipeline run the greater risk of significantly harming their marine life, specifically in an area that they have already invested in protecting. In light of these serious environmental consequences, we can only hope that the countries involved won’t make the same mistake twice.
(1) Gotev, Georgi. "Ukraine Says Opposition to Nord Stream 2 Is Growing." EurActivcom. N.p., 19 Jan. 2016. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
(2) NordStream 2. "The Specifics of the EU Gas Market." Law and Policy of the European Gas Market (n.d.): 10-44. 19 July 2016. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.
(3) International Maritime Organization. "Default Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas //." Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas. N.p., 2016. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
(5) Country, By. "Environmental Impacts of Constructing the Nord Stream Pipelines Minor and Local." Nord Stream's Environmental Monitoring Confirms Construction Caused Only Minor, Local Impacts on the Environment. N.p., 18 Sept. 2013. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
(6) Hollis, Edgar H. "A Literature Review of the Effects of Turbidity and Siltation on Aquatic Life." December 1964Turbidity and Siltation Are Detrimental to Aquatic Life. As Used(n.d.): n. pag. Native Fish Lab. Department of Chesapeake Bay Affairs, Dec. 1964. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.
(7) (www.dw.com), Deutsche Welle. "Nord Stream Pipeline Poses Dilemmas for Environmentalists | Environment | DW.COM | 07.11.2011." DW.COM. N.p., 11 July 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
(9) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "WORKING GROUP I CONTRIBUTION TO THE IPCC FIFTH ASSESSMENT REPORT (AR5), CLIMATE CHANGE 2013: THE PHYSICAL SCIENCE BASIS." WORKING GROUP I – TWELFTH SESSION (2013): n. pag. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 7 June 2013. Web.
Image: © Leonid Eremeychuk | Dreamstime.com - Construction of gas pipeline on the ground
Tomer is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. While in school, Tomer majored in Political Science, concentrating on International Relations while conducting research on constitutional law. His interests and research-based aspirations are heavily focused on environmental policy and climate research, and he continues to work on constitutional matters due to his active involvement and interest in American politics. Tomer currently resides in Philadelphia, where he works at a prominent Center City law firm and is working towards attending law school. In his free time, Tomer enjoys working on his photography, attending automotive events, building his watch collection, and playing with puppies.