TALLINN - Plans to survey the Estonian seabed for the Russian-German gas pipeline edged a step closer when the Estonian Foreign Ministry recommended the consortium be granted permission to begin exploration.
The Cabinet will meet on Sept. 20 to consider the proposal for the project, dubbed Nord Stream, which has been a source of controversy since it was raised in 2005.
Nord Stream has applied to conduct geological surveys of the Gulf of Finland within Estonia's economic zone.
Several government ministries and other expert panels have now submitted their recommendations to the Cabinet, but the Foreign Ministry's positive assessment is likely to be the deciding factor.
However the government has reiterated that granting permission for the surveys doesn't mean that Estonia is granting final permission to build the pipeline in its economic zone.
The Foreign Ministry said Estonia could benefit from the data obtained by the survey team. As a condition of approval, the ministry said Nord Stream must hand over all survey data to the Estonian Maritime Adminis-tration, and said Estonian representatives must be on board all ships and sites connected to the operation.
It also said Nord Stream ships would be forbidden from entering Estonia's territorial water, which is different from its economic zone, and said activity on the main shipping route should be avoided.
There is a range of opinions among politicians. Mart Laar, chairman of the right-wing Pro Patria and Res Publica Union, has said he is unequivocally against giving permission for surveys since the Baltic state is ultimately against the pipeline.
"The opinion that Estonia can say 'yes' to the surveys and later say 'no' to the pipeline is naive, to put it mildly," Laar said Sept. 13. "Our possibility to take a stance with this project effectively ends with the issuance of permission for the surveys."
Edgar Savisaar, chairman of the opposition Center Party and mayor of Tallinn, said the gas pipeline threatens Estonia's security and that if the gas pipeline were to explode the force of the blast would be equivalent to an atomic bomb.
Foreign Minister Paet said there were legitimate grounds on which to reject the proposal, but said there were rules on which the government response must be based, regardless of whether the Baltic state liked the project. He said a final answer must be based on rational arguments and not emotions.
Speaking at a press conference, Paet said that the Foreign Ministry has asked for opinions from more than 20 institutions and organizations, most of which were consulted for answers to technical questions and are therefore neutral in their overall assessment.
Some scientists have argued that giving the green light to the surveys would enable Estonia to get a better picture of what is happening on the seabed in its maritime zone, which has so far not been surveyed, Paet said.
The Nord Stream project is a 1,200 km gas pipeline connecting Vyborg, Russia to Greifswald, Germany. Eventually the pipe, which will cost 5 billion euros, will carry some 55 billion cubic meters of gas annually.
The plan, which was unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2005, elicited furious reactions from many EU member states for Germany's failure to consider environmental factors and its allies' opinions.
Matthew Warnig, chairman of Nord Stream, expressed hope that Nord Stream could begin the survey in Estonian waters in the nearest future.
"Permission for the surveys from the Estonian government would be very good for us since the earlier this decision is made, the earlier we can start with the survey and then if necessary make adjustments in line with the demands of the different governments and hold corresponding negotiations," Warnig said.
He added that, in Nord Stream's opinion, all Estonian departments have handled the application appropriately and there has been no unnecessary foot-dragging.
Nord Stream, a joint project between three companies 's one Russian and two German 's has said that the surveys would result in no environmental pollution or adverse effect on nature.