Environmental constraints of the gas pipe construction in the Baltic Sea
Archived Articles 20 Sep 2007  EWR
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Ivar Puura

Environmental impact of the Nord Stream pipeline should be evaluated by an international panel of scientists at the EU level

The European Union (EU) has made significant investments to basic and applied science and to environmental policies based on scientific evidence.

The main task of these investments has been the implementation of the scientific knowledge to enhance the quality of life in the EU and partner countries, with the emphasis on the health and safety of population and protecting the environment. From the logic of these EU policies, it follows that all the major investments to infrastructure should avoid the risks related to the health of people and safety of the environment.

Large-scale construction works and eventual accidents in the Baltic Sea increase the risks to the civilians and wildlife in all the countries surrounding the Baltic. Therefore, a relevant concern is that the issues risen by scientists will receive too little consideration in political decisions. In accordance with the Aarhus Convention, Estonian Naturalists’ Society attached to the Estonian Academy of Sciences calls all scientists and environmentalists active in research institutions and NGOs of the Baltic Sea countries for developing and explaining the general picture on the environmental impact of the construction of the Baltic Sea gas pipe and possible alternatives.

Also, as the issue of the gas transport to the Europe is an interdisciplinary problem that can be used as a model situation in environmental education, it would be useful to discuss these large-scale issues in seminars of European schools and universities.

In most countries of the EU, dissemination of knowledge and explaining relevant scientific aspects of relevant environmental problems is considered to be a duty of all scientists. In this respect, geological and ecological aspects have received too little attention in the discussion of the environmental impact of the Nord Stream gas pipe project not only for general public, but also for decision-makers. This article attempts to give a brief introduction and some key references for filling this gap.

Notes on EU policy in halting the loss of biodiversity

In 2001, EU Heads of State and government agreed to halt the decline of biodiversity in the EU by 2010 and set an objective to secure the recovery of habitats and natural systems. In 2002, the Convention of Biological Diversity adopted its strategic plan which includes the overall target to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.
In 2006, this goal was targeted in the communication of the EC on halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010, with its 82-page annex:

Examples of relevant aspects of this document directly related to the construction of the gas pipe are as follows.

It is stated that “biodiversity, or biological diversity, is the variety of life on Earth. Biodiversity is expressed at three levels – the diversity of ecosystems, the diversity of species, and the diversity of genes. Humans are part of biodiversity and depend on many life support systems provided by biodiversity and ecosystems. Ecosystems provide a stream of services, the continued delivery of which is essential to our economic prosperity, security, health and other aspects of our quality of life. These ‘ecosystem services’ include the air we breathe, and the provision of goods such as food, fibre, fuel, freshwater and medicines. They include the regulation of climate, flooding, disease and water quality. They include essential supporting services such as soil formation, nutrient cycling, pollination and primary production. And they include cultural services such as aesthetic, educational, recreational, psychological and spiritual benefits. […]The more we lose biodiversity, the more ecosystem services are put at risk.” (p. 11-12)

The ecosystems in the Baltic Sea are seen by EU as the most vulnerable ones.

“There is established but incomplete evidence that changes being made in ecosystems are increasing the likelihood of non-linear changes in ecosystems (including accelerating, abrupt, and potentially irreversible changes), with important consequences for human well-being. Thresholds exist within ecosystems, which, if crossed, cause the ecosystem to switch to a different structure or functioning. Generally, the more diverse an ecosystem, the further it is from such a threshold and thus the more resilient it is to pressures. The loss of species and genetic diversity, and increasing pressures, push ecosystems towards such thresholds. […] In some cases – such as in the Baltic Sea - thresholds may already have been passed.” (p. 22)

Long-term economic effects of the declination of ecosystem services are pointed out:

“The costs of non-action are potentially immense – in terms of lost assets, goods and services. The degradation of ecosystem services represents the loss of ‘natural capital’. The loss of this capital (or wealth) due to ecosystem degradation is however not reflected in conventional national accounts. For example, a country could cut its forests and deplete its fisheries, and this would show only as a positive gain in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) without registering the corresponding decline in assets (wealth). A number of countries that appeared to have positive growth in net savings (wealth) in 2001 actually experienced a loss in wealth when degradation of natural resources was factored into the accounts.” (p. 29)

The responsibility of the Member States is summarized as follows:
“Action for the EU’s most important habitats and species is key to halting biodiversity loss by 2010 and fostering recovery. Securing these habitats requires greater commitment from Member States to propose, designate, protect and effectively manage Natura 2000 sites. It also requires that they strengthen coherence, connectivity and resilience of the network, including through support to national, regional and local protected areas. Targeted action for threatened species under the directives is a vital complement to the site-based approach. Conservation measures comparable to those provided for by the nature directives are required in those EU outermost regions not covered by these directives. Beyond these community-level instruments, better planning at Member State level holds the key to preventing, minimising and offsetting negative impacts of regional and territorial development on biodiversity, thereby reconciling development with conservation.” (p. 48)

An emphasis is given to strengthening of EU decision making, involving “improving coordination and complementarity between Community and Member States; ensuring new policies and budgets take due account of biodiversity needs (notably by recognising natural capital and ecosystem services); improving coherence at national level between various plans and programmes affecting biodiversity; and ensuring decision-making at regional and local level is consistent with high-level commitments for biodiversity.”

The targets include establishing and safeguarding the Natura 2000 network, coherence of the protected areas network and reaching the situation where no priority species will be in worsening conservation status by 2010 (p. 68-69).

Current state of the environmental impact assessment of the Baltic Sea pipeline project

After feedback from Finnish research institutions, the government of Finland made a suggestion for the seabed studies in Estonian economic zone, to evaluate the impact to fragile ecosystems of the Baltic Sea. However, it was also noted in many Finnish expert opinions that the background information for this study is very poorly prepared. In the application and project plan presented to the Government of Estonia, the Nord Stream company claimed that the first environmental impact assessment report will be presented by July, 2007, i.e. at least two month before the answer to the request for the seabed studies is expected. According to the official information on the web page of the government of Estonia, this condition is not fulfilled. However, the presence and quality of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) is a pre-requisite for making adequate and well-informed decisions on the environmental impact of the construction of the gas pipe and risks of eventual accidents.

The Estonian Academy of Science has expressed the concerns about the previous activities of the project developers not compatible with the EU policies and traditions and neglecting major environmental issues:

Terms of reference of current environmental impact assessment evaluated as inadequate

Research institutions around the Baltic Sea have pointed out that although the procedures of environmental impact assessment have been exercised in national level, the terms of reference (TOR) for the EIA presented so far is incomplete, inadequate or missing. This is also fixed in the application documentation, where it is noted that “partial information” for the EIA is presented, with a reference to the project proposal. Most relevant aspects that are needed for the EIA, are missing: as pointed out by the Geological Survey of Finland, “… the report of the company Nord Stream is quite long, but still partly inadequate. The data on the seafloor that are referred to are dealt with in a few sentences without tables or maps”:

The missing geological information also implies that the risks related to earthquakes and the geological structure of the Baltic Sea have never been included to the project documentation and to the terms of reference of the international environmental impact assessment. Therefore, the dangers related to potential catastrophic events are strongly underestimated in the project description and in the current versions of EIA

Earthquake risks not evaluated

The series of Kaliningrad earthquakes on September, 21, 2004 with registered magnitudes of above 5 in the Richter scale is recorded among the most significant earthquakes in 2004-2006 in the Council of Europe’s major hazards network: http://www.coe.int/T/DG4/Major...
Land slides and broken railways demonstrate the magnitude of damage that is sufficient for destruction of the gas pipe under the Baltic Sea. Following the Kaliningrad earthquake, several research articles on the Baltic Sea as a seismic zone have appeared and corresponding conferences on preventing the natural hazards have been held. No part of this information has been taken into account in TOR of EIA of the Nordstream gas pipe project.

In near history, some earthquakes have been registered near the planned route of the gas pipe

The undersea Osmussaar earthquake on October, 25, 1976 with magnitude of 4.7 in Richter scale, caused destruction at the Osmussaar coast and buildings on the island. Relatively frequent earthquakes in the Baltic Sea that would destroy the gas pipe and cause a giant gas explosion are a reality and their exact sites are unpredictable. Especially vulnerable would be the pipeline in the areas north of Osmussaar, where the 150-m-high relatively steep undersea cliff (the subsea part of the Baltic Klint) would require S-type bending of the pipeline. These combined risks of the seabed topography and seismicity have not been addressed in any of the available project documents.

In scientific terms, up to now, there is no adequate evaluation of environmental impact and even no adequate work hypothesis how to reach it. During the decade of the development process, there are no signs of scientific capacity for the adequate approach.

Missing information and work hypothesis

As concluded by the Finnish Institute of Marine Research: “No plan of the actual enviromental impact assessment has been submitted. Even though the writers of the assessment programme have thoroughly listed the issues brought up in the literature and discussions with specialists, the consequences, investigations and procedures logically required by them have been ignored or are passed with general statements. … Taking into account the special characteristics and vulnerability of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland in particular, there is reason to consider changing the schedule so that it would facilitate the implementation of a sufficiently thorough EIA assessment”.

Examples of items from a partial list of the missing information include: (1) first environmental impact assessment report (deadline July, 2007); (2) full information about the geology and environmental constraints of the Russian mainland and part of the Baltic Sea in the area of the fragile ecosystems, including the prospective Ingermanlandsky Nature Reserve based on the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Russia, Ministry of Environment of Finland and Institute of Biology of St. Petersburg State University:
(3) background analysis and maps of the seabed topography and geology of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, in particular; (4) scientifically sound analysis of tectonics, deep fault zones and earth quake risks of the Baltic Sea in the light of the earthquakes near Osmussaar (1976) and Kaliningrad (2004); (5) programme for scientific modelling research including the seismic effects, sediment transport, impact to ecosystems, eventual gas leaks and related explosions of different size; (6) adequate terms of reference for environmental impact assessment, to fulfil the necessary conditions indicated by the Finnish and other research institutions.

Any research carried out in the context of the Nord Stream project should be public domain and available for the researchers. For preventing further environmental disasters, it is relevant that this list would be compiled by a joint working group of European scientists, involving top experts in the field. A constructive development that would follow the EU initiatives and policies would be to start a scientifically adequate independent analysis by international expert panel of scientists, with national and international working groups focusing on territorial issues and complex subjects including geological, seismic and ecological aspects.

A constructive alternative: the AMBER pipeline

Constraints related to marine ecology, seismicity and geological structure well-known to many researchers, but not adequately approached and explored in the Nord Stream project involve high risks are very serious constraints for the undersea pipeline. Because of the high risks of breakage of the gas pipe and gas leak and the problems concerning the ammunition and toxic substances in the bottom of the sea, the land route of the gas pipe via Latvia and Poland (the Amber pipeline) only briefly mentioned in the project documentation should be elaborated as a most constructive alternative. Quick launch of the parallel full-scale study of this alternative would allow to avoid potential economic risks related to promoting only one alternative. All the alternatives should be investigated from the start, based on scientifically sound terms of reference for environmental impact assessment. The goal of the gas export from Russia to the EU countries should be coupled with the ultimate goal of safety of people and avoiding environmental hazards.

Tartu, September, 19, 2007


Marek Sammul, PhD in ecology,
President, Estonian Naturalists’ Society attached to the Estonian Academy of Sciences

Ivar Puura, PhD in geology,
Vice President, Estonian Naturalists’ Society attached to the Estonian Academy of Sciences
Head of the education and outreach working group, national committee of the UNESCO and IUGS International Year of the Planet Earth
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