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Nord Stream: The Longest Sub-Sea Pipeline in the World

With Russia as the world’s top exporter of natural gas (around 60 per cent more than second-placed Qatar) and Germany as the second-highest importer (a mere whisker behind Japan), a direct pipeline over the shortest distance between the two would seem to be a no-brainer. Overland routes involved transit fees for the countries en route, but to build the pipeline under the Baltic…?

The first undersea pipeline, code-named PLUTO, ‘underwater transportation of oil’ or, as civilians interpreted it, ‘pipeline under the ocean’, was laid by HMS Latimer in just 10 hours on 12 August 1944. The pipeline failed when an escorting destroyer caught it with its anchor and damaged it beyond repair. A second line was laid by HMS Sancroft two days later. The distance was not great, from Sandown on the Isle of Wight to the French coast but, in a maritime war zone, it was a considerable technical achievement.

It wasn’t going to be easy

The problems that had to be overcome to run a 1,222km pipeline under the Baltic were both technological and political.

The sheer length of the Nord Stream pipeline was the first snag to overcome. While overland pipelines had booster compressors along the way to maintain the pressure in the pipeline, undersea pipes had to manage without. At the time, the longest undersea pipeline in the world was the Langeled, from Norway to England, but even that had an en route connection, via the Sleipner Riser platform in the North Sea.

Nord Stream did not have that option. The 220 bar pressure generated at the Portovaya compressor had to propel the gas for the entire 1,222km distance and the pipe would have to be constructed to take that high initial pressure. But a pipe of such stringent specifications was not necessary further down the pipeline where the pressure decreased and the designers came up with a cost-saving plan that took this into consideration. The pipeline has a constant internal diameter of 1,153mm, but the system was designed to have three different design pressure sections (220, 200 and 177.5 bar) with pipe wall thicknesses (34.4, 30.9 and 26.8mm) corresponding to the gas pressure drop over the long journey.

There were international borders to cross

The original pipeline project started in 1997 when Gazprom – a Russian majority state-owned multinational energy corporation headquartered in Saint Petersburg – and its associates formed the joint company North Transgas (later renamed Nord Stream AG) for construction and operation of a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea. A route survey in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany, and a feasibility study of the pipeline were conducted in 1998. Several routes were considered including routes with onshore segments through Finland and Sweden.

The Nord Stream scheme included two double pipelines, the original Nord Stream running from Vyborg to Lubmin near Greifswald and two further pipelines, Nord Stream 2, running from Ust-Luga to Lubmin.

Vyborg June2012 View from Olaf Tower
Vyborg June2012 View from Olaf Tower. By A.Savin, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The environmental impact assessment was conducted from 2006 to 2009 in Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany, as well as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as affected parties. The greatest impact, the report concluded, would be from the consumption of the transported gas. At an annual output of 55 billion cubic metres, each pair of pipes could cause emissions of 110 million tonnes of CO2 per year, at a time when Europe was striving to reduce its carbon footprint.

Further, the compressor station at the Russian beginning of Nord Stream 1 was projected to emit around 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Taking into account that the production of steel for the pipes – not to mention the concrete and other materials – would add millions of tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, it is not surprising that the pipeline projects were criticised by some countries and environmental organisations.

There was war debris along the route

Carbon dioxide wasn’t the only cause for concern. There was a fear that the pipeline could disturb World War II graves dating from naval battles in 1941. While the route avoided one known wreck, a seismic vessel discovered a sunken Soviet submarine in the Gulf of Finland. Other wrecks in the area were much older, dating back, according to Russian archaeologists, to the reign of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from 1682 to 1725.

The Baltic Sea was heavily mined during World Wars I and II, with many mines still in the sea and it was feared that the pipeline would disturb them. However, sunken mines found on the pipeline route lay primarily in international waters at a depth of more than 70 metres and were detonated under water.

There was also the worry that the construction would bring up ammunition and other toxic materials dumped in the sea, particularly during World War II and that toxic substances could damage the Baltic’s sensitive ecosystem. Swedish environmentalists called for an examination of the possibility of rerouting the pipeline onto dry land. Finnish environmental groups claimed that the flatter sea bed to the south of the proposed route would make construction more straightforward and therefore less disruptive, while Latvia worried that the lack of water circulation in the Baltic Sea made Nord Stream hazardous and Estonia warned that the pipeline work would alter sea currents.

The World Wide Fund for Nature requested protection for the Baltic marine habitats, which could be upset by the Nord Stream project and its Finnish branch threatened legal action. Russian environmental organisations warned of possible damage to a planned nature preserve and Swedish environmental groups worried that the pipeline would pass too closely to the border of the marine reserve near Gotland. Greenpeace was, naturally, concerned about a lot of sensitive areas.

Permits were a long time coming

Considering all this, it took time for Nord Stream to get the go-ahead from all the authorities along the route. The Swedish government initially rejected the application and new paperwork had to be submitted. Denmark gave permission for the pipeline to pass through its waters in October 2009, but it was only the following month that the Swedish and Finnish governments authorised the laying of the pipeline in their exclusive economic zones. This was despite the fact that Nord Stream had hired former Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponer as a consultant to help speed up the application process in Finland. The final environmental permit was issued in February 2010.

The project was also controversial from a political and economic standpoint. Ukraine, in particular, but also Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries, objected to missing out on the lucrative transit fees for use of pipelines through their countries. The United States weighed in because of concerns that the pipelines would increase Russia’s control of gas supplies in Europe.

However, construction of the first stage of the project, the Russian onshore feeding pipeline for Nord Stream, had already got under way in December 2005 and the pipeline and the operating company were officially renamed Nord Stream AG in 2006. The first stage was completed in 2010.

Meanwhile the Italian company Snamprogetti had been appointed design engineers for the pipeline in 2007 and its parent company, Saipem, awarded the construction contract in June 2008, by which time all the supply contracts were also in place. Rolls-Royce plc was awarded a contract to supply turbines for the compressor and the seabed dredging contract was put in place in January 2009. By the end of January 2010, the supply contracts for the second line had also been awarded.

Construction could start in earnest

Construction of the Portovaya compressor station in Vyborg began in January 2010. The first pipe of the pipeline was laid on 6 April 2010 in the Swedish exclusive economic zone and the construction of the pipeline was officially launched on 9 April 2010 at Portovaya Bay.

This was the moment when the multiple pieces of the project started to come together. The construction and logistics problems included, among other things, having pipes manufactured, concrete coated and in the right place at the right time to keep the construction machine running seamlessly for 30 months.

Construction of the pipelines was scheduled to minimise environmental impacts. For example, so as not to interfere with critical seal breeding and fish spawning seasons. Each line is made up of about 100,000 pipes, to be laid in three sections, with different wall thicknesses following the direction of the gas flow. Along the pipeline route, five harbour sites supplied concrete-coated pipes on a continuous basis to the lay barges. Initially three vessels were used, working at different segments of the route. Later in construction, only two vessels were used.

Saipem’s Castoro Dieci, designed for shallow waters, worked in the Bay of Greifswald, laying 28 kilometres of each of the twin pipelines, between June and October 2010. Allsea’s Solitaire – the biggest pipelaying vessel in the world – laid a 342.5-kilometre segment of each of the twin pipelines between September 2010 and August 2011. With its dynamic positioning system, the Solitaire was the ideal vessel for working in the congested Gulf of Finland. Saipem’s Castoro Sei laid about 853.5 kilometres of each of the two pipelines, working from April 2010 to the end of the project.

In preparation for pipe laying, the seabed had been surveyed with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to confirm data gathered when the route was being planned. Some spots were found where the seabed needed loads of coarse gravel to be laid to create a stable base on which the pipeline could rest. Suitable vessels were employed and the gravel was laid.

Now the pipes can be laid

On board the pipe-laying vessels, the necessary bevelling, welding and testing were carried out before the pipeline was lowered onto the seabed. Once laid, the pipelines were again checked under water by ROV to ensure correct positioning.

The three pipeline segments were flooded with water and pressure tested to ensure mechanical integrity, before being connected by welding them under water at the two locations where wall thickness changes because of the pressure drop. Once connected, the pipeline was emptied of water and filled with nitrogen before natural gas was safely introduced.

The last pipe was put in place on 4 May 2011, completing the laying of the first line. With all the underwater work finished in June 2011 and a connection made to the OPAL pipeline, which runs along the eastern border of Germany, the first gas was pumped on 6 September 2011.

The official inauguration ceremony in Lubmin was attended by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel,  Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French Prime Minister François Fillon and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on 8 November 2011. Construction of the second line was completed in August 2012 and it was inaugurated on 8 October 2012.

The pipelines had been built and operational on time and in budget.

Two more lines would double the capacity

Nord Stream AG had started looking at adding two extra lines (later named Nord Stream 2) as early as 2011, planning to push the annual throughput to 110 billion cubic metres. In January 2015, however, plans were put on temporary hold after the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea. This had meant that the existing lines were running at only half capacity.

In June 2015, the project was revived, with Nord Stream 2 AG, a subsidiary of Gazprom, responsible for its development. Germany granted Nord Stream 2 a permit for construction and operation in German waters and for landfall areas near Lubmin in January 2018 and construction started in May, this time at the German end of the route, at Greifswald.

But all was not plain sailing. The following January, the United States threatened sanctions if work on the project were not stopped. By the end of the year Nord Stream 2 pipe laying activities had been suspended. The first part of 2020 saw both German and Polish authorities accusing Gasprom of flouting competition rules, thus creating a de facto monopoly. Poland fined Gazprom €50 million for not co-operating.

Pipe laying resumed in December, the sections were connected in June 2021 and the laying of the second line was completed in September.

So, finally, the controversial pipelines were up and running.

This was not the end of the story

Nord Stream pipeline runs from Vyborg compressor station at Portovaya Bay, via the Baltic to Greifswald in Germany, a distance of 1,222km. It runs through Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and finally Germany. Nord Stream 2 starts at the Slavyanskaya compressor station near Ust-Luga in Russia. A 3.2km onshore pipeline runs from the compressor station to the landfall on the shore of Narva Bay. Except for the Russian section, the route of Nord Stream 2 follows mainly the route of Nord Stream and it has the same capacity.

But the fait accompli did not end the controversy.

Sergei Ryabkov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister
Sergei Ryabkov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister
By Mohammad Hassanzadeh, is licensed under
CC-BY

Accepting that the completion of the project was inevitable, the United States lifted sanctions on 19 May 2021. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov welcomed the move as “a chance for a gradual transition toward the normalisation of our bilateral ties”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by President Joe Biden’s decision. Biden made a deal with Germany that they could reimpose sanctions if Russia were to use the pipeline as a “political weapon” and threaten to cut Russian gas supplies to Poland and Ukraine. Funds would also be made available for Ukraine’s transition to green energy and Russia would be asked to extend the transit contract.

Critics of Nord Stream say that Europe could become dangerously dependent on Russian natural gas, and that gas supplies could become a political tool. Sberbank’s investment research division in 2018 claimed that the project’s goals were exclusively political and corruption-related: “They are commonly perceived as being foisted on the company by the government pursuing a geopolitical agenda.”

Swedish military experts and several politicians, including former Minister for Defence Mikael Odenberg, feared the pipeline might cause a security policy problem for Sweden, being an excuse for a Russian navy presence. Finnish military scholar Alpo Juntunen said there were clearly military implications to the pipeline that were not discussed openly and, when Vladimir Putin stated that the ecological safety of the pipeline project would be ensured by using the Baltic Fleet of the Russian Navy, even more people got worried. The Economist magazine warned that Europe was becoming more dependent on Russia while its own gas reserves declined.

Was it all above board?

Some ethical questions have also been raised and not all have been adequately answered.

Vladimir Putin was a strong supporter of the project. The Managing Director of Nord Stream AG, former East German secret police officer Matthias Warnig, has denied allegations that he knew Putin when he was a KGB agent in East Germany. He said that he had first met Putin when he was attached to the Saint Petersburg Mayor’s Office in 1991.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was another strong supporter of the project. The agreement to build the pipeline was signed 10 days before the German parliamentary election. A few weeks before Schröder stepped down as Chancellor, the German government guaranteed to cover €1 billion of the Nord Stream project cost, should Gazprom default on a loan. The guarantee expired without having been needed. Soon after he stepped down, Schröder agreed to head the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG, an apparent conflict of interests, implying that the pipeline project may have been pushed through for personal gain. No charges have been laid despite years of exhaustive investigations.

In February 2009, the Swedish prosecutor’s office started an investigation based on suspicions of bribery and corruption after a college professor had warned that the pipeline would come too close to a sensitive bird zone and the college received a donation from Nord Stream.  

The consortium had also hired several former high-ranking officials, such as a former undersecretary at the Swedish Prime Minister’s office and a former press secretary for several politicians in the Swedish Social Democratic Party. In addition, the former Prime Minister of Finland, Paavo Lipponen, had worked for Nord Stream as an adviser since 2008.

In spite of all the difficulties and objections, the pipeline is complete, the gas is flowing from Russia to Germany and most people surveyed seem to be happy with the outcome.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nord_Stream

https://www.offshore-mag.com/business-briefs/equipment-engineering/article/16755095/nord-stream-completes-worlds-longest-subsea-pipeline

Sberbank CIB, Russian Oil and Gas – Tickling Giants, 2018

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Pluto

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