RIGA - Complex environmental consultations are being held across the Baltics as part of a planned gas pipeline project through the Baltic Sea that will eventually satisfy the energy demand of up to 26 million households in Europe.
The Nord Stream consortium responsible for the project are currently conducting public meetings in all nine countries 's including Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania 's affected by the project.
Participant countries are being given the opportunity to discuss the potential environmental and trans-boundary impacts of the project which would see a gas pipeline built under the Baltic Sea to deliver Russian gas directly to Germany.
The pipeline, estimated to cost 7.4 billion euros, will eventually be able to supply 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas a year.
The figure is equivalent to 25 percent of the additional imported gas that Europe is expected to require due to increased demand and depleting resources in the North Sea.
The ambitious pipeline project is scheduled to be completed in 2012, with the first of two parallel pipelines, stretching about 1,200 kilometres along the seabed, each with a transport capacity of some 27.5 billion bcm per annum, expected to become operational in 2010.
Nord Stream regional adviser for the Baltic States Romans Baumanis said the project was particularly important given the serious future energy shortfall in Europe due to a sharp decline in European gas production as well as the closure of outdated nuclear power stations.
"At a time when Europe's future energy security is imperative, the significance of projects like Nord Stream cannot be underestimated to ensure that the EU maintains its global competitiveness in a time of economic uncertainty," he said.
Some countries, including Sweden, Estonia and Finland, have questioned the Baltic Sea pipeline, amid fears it could seriously impact the region's maritime environment and affect national security.
The project, which will bypass the Baltic countries, also raised political and economic concerns over the security of energy supply.
It's feared Moscow could potentially reduce or interrupt gas supplies to its smaller Eastern European neighbors while continuing to supply Germany directly.
It's also feared the bypass pipeline would accentuate the isolation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from European Union energy markets.
Russia remains the EU's single largest energy partner and Europe constitutes Russia's largest market for gas, accounting for 75 percent of Russian gas exports.
Currently the EU is dependent on Ukraine as the sole transit country for 80 percent of Russian gas imports.
Supplies to several EU states were interrupted earlier this year following a dispute between Russia and the Ukraine over the price its smaller neighbor would pay for Russian gas, and how much Moscow would pay Ukraine for allowing gas to cross the territory on pipelines bound for Europe.
Baumanis said the new pipeline would open up an additional supply route to the European market.
The project has been backed by the EU, which in 2006 recognized the pipeline as among the most important future trans-European infrastructure projects.
Baumanis said Nord Stream had also been involved in intensive dialogue with authorities and stakeholders throughout the Baltic Sea region in order to better understand their concerns.
He said Nord Stream's extensive research had shown that in most cases offshore pipelines have less impact on the environment than onshore pipelines, which can result in scarred landscapes and increased harmful CO2 emissions.
Baumanis maintains the project is environmentally sound, saying the consortium had invested some 100 million euro in safety and environmental planning studies.
Under its obligations of the Environmental Impact Assessment process, Nord Stream carried out surveys examining water quality, sediment contamination, plankton, bird habitats and marine life.
Baumanis said studies had shown the project had been evaluated as mainly "low level" impact and that areas disrupted during the construction phase would recover once the pipeline was in operation.
The Nord Stream pipeline, which will pump gas from Siberia to Europe, is being built jointly by Gazprom, Germany's E.ON and BASF, and Dutch gas transportation firm Gasunie at an estimated cost of 7.4 billion euros.
Authorities of the nine Baltic Sea states have agreed the cross-national consultation phase would be completed in June. The next public meeting is scheduled to take place in Latvia on May 6.