Pipeline Connects Germany and Russia While Dividing Europe

The Nord Stream 2 is facing scrutiny for both political and ecological reasons, but it’s unlikely to be stopped. Inside the construction of the world’s most controversial pipeline.

A train transports pipes for the Nord 2 Stream Pipeline.

A train transports pipes for the Nord 2 Stream Pipeline.

On September 5, the offshore pipelay vessel Solitaire started laying pipeline in the Gulf of Finland. The pipelaying was a routine operation, but it received international press coverage. That’s because the pipeline will eventually be part of one of the most controversial energy projects in recent history.

The Nord Stream 2 is planned to stretch across the Baltic Sea, funneling Russian gas to German power stations. The European Union (EU) says that the pipeline is against EU regulations, and that it could increase the region’s dependence on Russia at a time when relations between Eastern Europe and Russia are strained.

From ecological anger in Russia to rebuffs from Denmark to a mixed reception in Germany, following the pipeline along its proposed route exposes a string of controversies and complications.

Pipeline Overview

The Nord Stream 2 will travel the 1,222km (759.3mi) from Vyborg, near St. Petersburg, to Lubmin, Germany,closely following the route of the original 2011 Nord Stream Pipeline. When Nord Stream 2 is completed, the pipeline’s capacity is set to double to 110 billion cubic meters (3.9 trillion cubic feet) per year, nearly a quarter of total EU demand. Currently, Russian gas is responsible for only 4.3 percent of German power generation, but the country’s commitment to phasing out coal and gas may drive that number up in the coming years.

Nord Stream 2 (in orange) follows approximately the same route as the original Nord Stream (in blue). (Image courtesy of Gazprom.)

Nord Stream 2 (in orange) follows approximately the same route as the original Nord Stream (in blue). (Image courtesy of Gazprom.)

This gas will be supplied by Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned natural gas company. In June 2015, Gazprom signed an agreement with European energy companies Royal Dutch Shell, E.ON, OMV, and ENGIE to build another double pipeline along the same route. Since then, the plan has developed into a double pipeline made of 100,000 coated steel pipes, each with an internal diameter of 1,153mm (45.39in) and a wall thickness of 41mm.

From Russia, with Love

The pipeline’s route starts near Russia’s Narva Bay, at the Slavyanskaya compressor station. For natural gas to travel down a pipeline, it has to be cleaned, pressurized and cooled. Compressor stations are responsible for all of those functions, and typically they need to be located every 50-70 miles along the pipeline. But in this case, pipeline officials say that the Slavyanskaya station is powerful enough that the pipeline doesn’t need any intermediate compressor stations.

To reach the ocean from there, the pipeline needs to pass through the Kurgalsky reserve. Since the reserve is a protected area, Gazprom will be using a trench box method rather than open trenches to lay the pipe. In the trench-box method, workers dig a narrow trench and put open-topped “trench boxes” inside to maintain the structural integrity of the walls. This allows for a thinner trench without the risk of the walls collapsing inward. Pipeline officials estimate that, in this case, using the trench box method means they can reduce the overall width of each trench from 12m to 3.5m (39ft to 11ft).

An example of trench box construction used to lay a pipe. The walls of the trench stop dirt from collapsing down into the trench. (Image courtesy of Kundel Production Safety Systems.)

An example of trench box construction used to lay a pipe. The walls of the trench stop dirt from collapsing down into the trench. (Image courtesy of Kundel Production Safety Systems.)

Instead of being fabricated alongside the trench, the pipe will be pieced together in two locations along the line. Afterward, a linear winch will pull the pipeline through the trench, which will have been partially flooded to reduce any friction between the pipe and the bottom of the trench. Because of the slope of the area, the trench will be divided into sections by watertight dams, with the pipe pulled through section by section.

The controversy over this segment of the pipeline is, predictably, ecological. Both local and international groups have protested running a construction trench through a protected nature reserve, where many rare species have made their homes. A Greenpeace-affiliated petition to stop the construction questions why the company is using open-cut techniques, which will affect the surface wildlife more than underground tunneling techniques would. As an example, opponents point to the underground microtunnel planned for the German side of the pipeline.

“In Russia, the trench will cut through the unique reserve while in Germany the gas pipeline will be laid underground, without affecting the natural landscape. In other words, environmental requirements in Germany must be respected, while in Russia this is not necessary,” the petition concluded.

Out to Sea

Offshore, the construction process becomes more complicated. Before the pipe is even laid down, the project team has to prepare the seabed to ensure that it’s stable. After the two World Wars, the Baltic became a dumping ground for old munitions, making the ocean floor in the region a literal minefield to navigate. Gazprom had to survey the route of the pipeline beforehand to ensure that it wouldn’t hit any explosive surprises.

Near the shore in the Russian and German zones, the preparation work will involve dredging and backfilling parts of the ocean floor. The work crew will use a dredger (a floating plant specialized for dredging) to carve a trench into the ocean floor, and then lay the pipe into the trench.

There are three main ways of laying long pipelines like the Nord Stream 2 underwater: tow-in, S-lay and J-lay. In tow-in installation, the pipes are towed in behind a boat, and then the buoyancy modules keeping them afloat are flooded or removed to let them settle down to the ocean floor. In S-lay pipe installation, the pipes are lowered section by section off the stern of the boat, so that when the pipe hits the ocean bottom, it forms a misshapen “S.” The J-lay installation process is identical to the S-lay, except that pipes are instead lowered into the water from a tower on the back of the boat, meaning that there’s one less curve in the string.

The Solitaire, the ship that will be laying pipe for Nord Stream 2, is an S-lay barge with a holding force of 1050 t. The water depth will not be an issue, as Solitaire set the record for ultra-deepwater pipeline installation at 2775m (9104ft) in 2007, and the Baltic Sea is 459m (1,51,0ft) at its deepest. Project officials say that they should be able to lay 3km (1.86mi) of pipe a day.

The Solitaire, a pipe-laying ship, is one of the largest in the industry. Its high capacity allows it to lay 3km of pipe per day. (Image courtesy of Allseas.)

The Solitaire, a pipe-laying ship, is one of the largest in the industry. Its high capacity allows it to lay 3km of pipe per day. (Image courtesy of Allseas.)

The Solitaire will be accompanied by several pipe carrier vessels, which will bring a load of pipe to the ship every 24 hours. When they reach the larger ship, the pipe ends will be bevelled to prepare them for welding. Next, pipe joints will be welded together into a double segment, which will then be scanned ultrasonically to detect any flaws in the weld. The double segment will be welded onto the end of the “pipe string” extending into the water, and that weld will also be tested ultrasonically. Finally, workers will apply a heat-shrink sleeve over the weld, and then apply hardening polyurethane foam to support the sleeve.

After the pipeline is placed into the trench, the dredger will backfill the rest of the trench with the excavated material. The cover, supplemented by rock berms in particularly unstable areas, will ensure that the pipeline won’t move due to shifting sands or water.

The controversy surrounding the open ocean segment of the pipeline is primarily focused on territory rights. The original plan for the pipeline called for it to pass through the territorial waters of five different countries: Russia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Four of the countries have issued permits so far, but Denmark has been a lone holdout, refusing Gazprom a permit. To overcome that, the company has planned an alternative route, one that goes through the country’s exclusive economic zone (the area just outside its territorial waters). Under international law, countries can only veto projects running through their EEZ as a result of safety and logistical concerns, not political reasons.

There has also been controversy from the EU, which has said that Gazprom needs the whole union’s permission to build a project through its waters. Gazprom has countered that it only needs to get permits from the countries whose waters that its pipeline will run through directly.

There are also environmental concerns about the work occurring in the open ocean. The environmental campaign group ClientEarth has filed a complaint with the Swedish courts to block the Nord Stream 2’s progress through Swedish waters, saying that the government did not seriously consider the project’s impact on wildlife. Specifically, the group is concerned about the fact that Nord Stream 2 AG will be detonating two bombs on the sea floor along the way, which it says could seriously harm Sweden’s protected harbor porpoises.

And, as recent prominent pipeline failures have illustrated, the pipeline itself could cause environmental damage. While pipelines are less likely to fail than truck or train transport methods, they are not invulnerable: the three U.S pipeline failures that occurred since September 2017 have killed 14 people. One of the most common sources of pipeline failure is external corrosion, especially for pipelines buried in the soil.

“In my experience with buried pipelines, in the soil, the coating will have degradation over time. That’s for sure,” Frank Cheng, the director of a pipeline corrosion laboratory at the University of Calgary, told the Globe and Mail this spring. “A pipeline—even if it is buried in a very mild soil condition—industry and society still need to worry about it, because it’s [there for] such a long time period.”

On land, it’s relatively easy to find and repair pipeline faults. But what about under the ocean?

In 2017, Hilcorp Alaska LLC realized that its pipeline in Alaska’s Cook Inlet was leaking. Like Nord Stream 2, Hilcorp’s pipeline carried natural gas, and a failure was eventually spotted by the gas bubbling up to the surface. But according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the leak may have started two months before anyone detected it. Company divers also initially had trouble reaching the leak to repair it once it was detected because of the extreme weather conditions.

So, while pipelines are relatively safe, there are certain inherent environmental risks—risks that not everyone is willing to take on in their territorial waters.

Entering Germany

On the German side, the pipeline will make landfall on the northern German coast near Lubmin. When the pipe reaches shallow water, two 400m (1312ft) microtunnels will make the transition to shore. Microtunneling is when workers use a remotely controlled microtunnel boring machine (MTBM) to dig a shaft that is too small for an operator to enter. The microtunnels will be approximately 10m (33ft) underground, and the ground water levels will be reduced to allow the tunnels to be built.

Construction for the Nord Stream 2, near the German town of Lubmin. (Image courtesy of NordKurier, Stefan Sauer.)

Construction for the Nord Stream 2, near the German town of Lubmin. (Image courtesy of NordKurier, Stefan Sauer.)

The tunnels will end in a PIG receiving station, where maintenance can be performed on the pipeline without stopping the flow of gas. From there, gas will travel to a natural gas receiving facility in nearby Gascade.

On the German side, part of the controversy is also environmental. Although the land segment of the tunnel will be underground instead of open-cut, reducing the environmental impact, the local Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) is fighting the pipeline for its potential disturbances to the area’s marine environment. “The problem is that the dredging line passes five protected marine areas,” said Kim Cornelius Detloff, NABU’s head of marine conservation.

But the landfall in Germany is most controversial for political reasons. The EU disagrees with Germany’s decision to source gas directly from Russia, especially since it could decrease the flow of gas through neighboring Ukraine. Because of Russia’s strained relationship with the smaller country, many fear that Russia could divert gas from Ukraine once the pipeline is completed, leaving the country in the dark. Amid mounting political unrest, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced earlier this year that her support of the pipeline was conditional on Russia still sending some of its supply through Ukraine’s routes.

Some are also concerned that increasing the amount of gas that Russia ships to Germany could make the country overly reliant on Russia, especially in a time of political tension between Russia and the EU. President Trump recently weighed in the issue, saying that Germany was becoming “dependent” on Russian power, although his motives may have been more economic than political, given that the U.S. is attempting to sell liquefied natural gas resources to Europe.

But despite the controversy, preparatory work on the German landing started earlier this summer, with excavators already digging trenches.

Calm Seas Ahead

Indeed, that seems to be the theme of the project, which is progressing despite any controversy, with little attention paid to its critics. While parties in both the EU and Russia have their reasons for opposing the project, there are few legal avenues left to challenge it.

For opponents of the Nord Stream 2, stopping construction will likely remain a pipe dream.