15th May 2021

Germany issues gas pipeline permit as Europe freezes

  • Snow in the EU quarter in Brussels in December: The cold snap in Europe brings unwelcome memories of the winter 2008-2009 gas crisis (Photo: EUobserver)

German authorities have given permission for Russia to build a major new gas pipeline to the country, as the EU waits to see if the winter will bring another Russia-Ukraine gas crisis.

The Stralsund Mining Authority in the region of Mecklenburg-West-Pomerania issued its environmental permit on Monday (21 December), concerning a 50-km-long stretch of the so-called Nord Stream pipeline.

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The project is still awaiting permission from Germany's Federal Maritime and Hydrographical Agency and from Finnish environmental courts before construction can begin.

If it is built on schedule, the Russian pipeline will in 2012 pump 55 billion cubic metres a year of gas - about 10 percent of EU consumption - directly to Germany, the Benelux countries, the UK, Denmark and France.

It could also redraw the energy politics map in Europe.

Currently, Russia delivers 80 percent of its gas exports to the EU via the Ukraine transit system and most of the rest via the Yamal pipeline running through Belarus and Poland.

The set up makes it harder for Moscow to use gas as a political weapon, for example by cutting off unfriendly governments in Minsk or Kiev, without impacting its biggest customers in the rich West.

Poland has long depicted Nord Stream as a strategic threat. But it is trying to make the most of a bad situation as the project comes closer to reality, with the Polish and German foreign ministers last week discussing how to ensure the pipeline dose not obstruct Polish shipping in the Baltic Sea.

Meanwhile, uncertainty remains over how Ukraine's 17 January presidential elections will impact political and commercial relations with Russia, amid calls in Ukraine to scrap an existing long-term contract for gas and concerns that Kiev does not have enough cash to pay for Russian gas deliveries in the New Year.

A bilateral dispute over gas bills last winter saw several EU states cut off during a cold snap in January, causing electricity cuts in Bucharest and Bratislava and shutting down factories for days.

With the Ukrainian elections looming, the freezing weather which has struck Europe in recent days will be an unwelcome reminder of last year's hardships for many in the former Communist bloc.

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