To complete the Nord Stream 2 (SP-2) gas pipeline, it remains to lay only 100 km of pipe along the bottom of the Baltic Sea. According to Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, the project is 95% ready and will be put into operation by the end of this year. However, the events around the long-suffering gas pipeline are developing so dramatically that the remaining 5% may become insurmountable for the project. At least, this is what the US authorities are striving for, for which SP-2 has become a political target.
The White House does not abandon attempts to “cut” the pipe at the final stage and is preparing additional obstacles for connecting the raw materials pipeline to the European energy system. “MK” discussed with experts whether Russia will be able to bring the pipeline to the “victorious” end, in what time frame it can happen and how quickly the gas pipeline will be able to start functioning. Our questions were answered by Sergey Pikin, Director of the Energy Development Fund, Artem DEEV, Head of the Analytical Department at AMarkets, Igor Yushkov, an expert at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation.
– What work and what forces are currently being carried out on the SP-2 project in the Baltic Sea?
Pikin: For the first time since early February, when the construction of the offshore section of the gas pipeline was resumed after a one-year shutdown due to US sanctions, the Nord Stream 2 project company reported accurate data on the progress of work: 2339 km (out of 2460 km), or 95% of the pipeline, were laid as of March 31. It remains to cover about 121 km – 5% of the total route.
Earlier it was reported that the pipe-laying barge “Fortuna” has built half of the unfinished section of one line of the SP-2 in the economic zone of Denmark. The Akademik Chersky pipelayer, which is now located near the Bornholm Island, is ready to join the end of the segment. The Danish section is not only longer, but also more difficult than the German one, since laying there is carried out at a depth of several tens of meters. Chersky possesses a dynamic positioning system that Fortuna does not have, therefore it is capable of working at such depths. The barge, in turn, set out to lay a gas pipeline in the coastal waters of Germany, in order to later connect it to the Danish section.
– What sections of the gas pipeline need to be completed? What does Fortune have to do, and what will be assigned to Akademik Chersky?
Pikin: In two months since the resumption of construction of the pipe, the barge has already covered more than 30 km of the export line. This is about half of the total unfinished section of the first branch of the pipeline. In Danish waters, about 19 kilometers remained to pass, the rest – in the water area of Germany, so there was confidence that by the beginning of summer the barge should manage.
“Akademik Chersky” is still making not entirely clear maneuvers – on the one hand, the ship was supposed to finish preparing for construction and start laying the pipe, but then it was deployed along the northern direction of the route. Since the Chersky has no technical problems, since otherwise the vessel would have continued to remain near the Curonian Spit, it can be assumed that the start of work was prevented by the maneuvers of unknown warships near the laying of the pipeline – they did not interfere with the construction of their movement, but clearly exerted psychological pressure.
– In addition to “Fortuna” and “Chersky”, what ships are involved in the completion and how many are there in total?
Deev: A whole fleet is involved in the construction of SP-2. The supply vessels Veni, Erri, Umka and Vladislav Strizhov, which deliver pipes from the project’s logistics base in the German port of Mukran, 50 miles from the site where the barge operates, carry the components Fortuna needs. The multipurpose vessel “Baltic Researcher” is monitoring the laying of the gas pipeline. The rescue vessel Murman and the multipurpose ice-class support vessel Vengeri, both under the Russian flag, are patrolling near the Akademik Chersky.
Starting from March 26, the Rescuer Karev made passes along the construction route, which became the third vessel to be used as a hydrograph, that is, it will conduct underwater work – to study the underwater route of the gas pipeline and monitor the pipelaying. The vessel is included in the fleet of the Marine Rescue Service, which provided the project with the largest number of ships – six vessels of various technical applications.
Previously, the Katun and Finval tugs, the Yuri Topchev icebreaker, the DP Gezina support vessel and the Artemis Offshore anchor handling vessel took an active part in the construction. In theory, in emergency situations, they can also be used to support any configuration of ships.
– When will the SP-2 offshore section be completed?
Yushkov: Based on the work plan provided to the Danish Energy Agency by the operator of the Nord Stream 2 project, taking into account downtime due to weather factors and an average daily laying speed of 400 meters, work on the branch in Denmark is planned to be completed by the end of May, and in Germany by the end of June. By the time the pipe was laid in the Danish water area, Fortuna gained speed of 1.1 thousand meters. However, given the turbulent Baltic Sea and the need to constantly rearrange the anchors to keep the barge in one place, it is not always possible to maintain such laying rates. Nevertheless, despite a two-week downtime due to storms in the Baltic Sea, Fortuna’s average daily speed was a satisfactory 480 meters.
Therefore, builders should now focus on climatic obstacles: in April, southwest of Bornholm, where work is underway, the Swedish Institute of Hydrology and Meteorology predicts wet snow and low visibility and wind speeds of up to 15 meters per second. The Russian ships participating in the project are capable of laying down under much more severe gusts, nevertheless, Gazprom tries to play it safe and “blows on the water” so that later it does not “burn itself in milk”.
– Still, the main obstacles to the construction of the SP-2 are connected not with storms, but with geopolitics. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken claims that Washington intends to increase sanctions against SP-2. What other steps can be taken against Russia and what consequences do they risk leading?
Deev: Whatever sanctions Washington is currently imposing, I am sure that the pipeline will be commissioned by the end of this year. However, in the future, SP-2 is not immune to new problems. At the request of the EU’s Third Energy Package, which regulates the supply of “blue fuel” to European countries, the use of the pipeline at full capacity may be limited by 50%, which will increase the pipe’s payback period. Nevertheless, the Europeans are interested in this project. In addition to the fact that the European Union has made serious investments in the SP-2, the new export route of Russia serves as a guarantee of the energy security of the countries of the Old World. The past winter confirmed Europe’s dependence on Russian raw materials, when gas storage reserves dropped to 30% – a record low for many years.
Pikin: Blinken’s initial statements made it possible to hope that the new US State Department sanctions would affect only specific vessels and their owners participating in the project: they were forbidden to supply pipes to companies engaged in retrofitting, insurance, inspection, testing and certification of the gas pipeline and interested construction companies. However, now the Joe Biden administration intends to include the project operator, the Swiss company Nord Stream 2, in the new list of restrictions against the Russian gas pipeline. This intention of the White House conceals new threats to SP-2. But there are also pluses. Nord Stream 2 is registered in Switzerland and operates in accordance with European laws. If there were at least some violations in the activities of the company – the operator of the project, ill-wishers would surely find fault with them much earlier. Since this has not happened, one can hope for the objectivity of international judicial platforms, where Nord Stream 2 may have to defend its interests.
Yushkov: The escalation of the geopolitical conflict around SP-2 is constantly escalating. Already, the Biden administration intends to appoint a special representative for SP-2. All this testifies to Washington’s disposition to “go all the way” in its desire to prevent the launch of a gas pipeline through which Russian gas will flow to Europe bypassing Ukraine. As Nord Stream 2 stated, on April 1, an increased activity of foreign warships (presumably, the Polish Navy) was recorded in the gas pipeline construction zone, and their actions were “provocative”. In addition, an unidentified submarine seen in the construction zone could damage the gas pipeline.
Meanwhile, only the EU itself can stop construction at this stage. But Brussels will connect such measures only if it is proved that the gas pipeline primarily implies the achievement of political goals, or if, when laying the pipe, Moscow will bring additional warships into the Baltic Sea, which can ram and sink civilian transport at the construction site.
Nevertheless, the negative rhetoric of American politicians, built up in the information field, puts pressure on Russia’s European partners: several dozen companies have already refused to participate in the project. The outflow of those wishing to make money on SP-2 due to US sanctions risks increasing. However, Gazprom is capable of replacing the companies providing pipe certification services – the monopoly will only have to collect and approve a package of necessary documents. However, the process of selecting new counterparties may be delayed, and the Americans will probably use the resulting temporary handicap to expand their presence in the European gas market.