Grigory Pasko: The Nord Stream Chronicles

[Editor’s note: Our correspondent Grigory Pasko has been writing extensively on the Nord Stream gas pipeline project for over a year already. In the spring of 2007, he filed a series of reports from northern Russia, where the approaches to the underwater pipe are being laid. That summer, he reported from Germany and Finland. For the past several months, we have been presenting his latest series about the project – from the Scandinavian perspective. To prepare these reports, Grigory traveled to Helsinki, Stockholm, and the Swedish island of Gotland, where he met with national and local politicians, environmentalists, civil engineers, academics, underwater archaeologists, fishermen, and ordinary citizens, who expressed a very wide range of opinions about this massive project that may very well alter their lives irreversibly. The last stop on Grigory’s journey was the Danish island of Bornholm in the southern Baltic, where, after great efforts to coordinate schedules, he finally managed to catch up with the elusive research vessel Pollux, which is conducting the most detailed survey ever undertaken of the Baltic Sea bed for Nord Stream. The ship was scheduled leave port once again only a few hours after Grigory landed on Bornholm, but he nevertheless managed to tour the vessel, meet with the experts on board, and see for himself the work it is doing before it cast off to sea. Grigory’s hosts were two management-level Nord Stream engineers: Bob Pirie (who works on board the Pollux as it surveys the sea bed) and Simon Bonnell (who flew in especially to meet with Grigory and answer his questions). Here then is Grigory Pasko’s report from the Pollux – the final installment in his year-long investigative series on Nord Stream.] The Nord Stream Chronicles “The bottom of the Baltic is safe for the pipeline,” say the specialists of the company Marin Mätteknik AB By Grigory Pasko karta_nordstream061908 A reference map hanging on the wall onboard the Pollux (photo by Grigory Pasko)

The representative of the company Nord Stream and I probably spent a month phoning and emailing each other back and forth, trying to find the best time and place to “catch” the research vessel Pollux, which is conducting a survey of the bed of the Baltic Sea along the proposed route of the gas pipeline. Finally, we managed to catch up with it during a more or less lengthy call in the port of Rønne on the Danish island of Bornholm.Compared with the gigantic passenger ferry moored nearby, the Pollux looked very small indeed. We already knew from the technical documents that had been provided in advance that the vessel had been built in the year 1976. It had been hired by the operator – Marin Mätteknik AB. The vessel’s class – Multipurpose offshore support vessel. Principal equipment – Gradiometer survey and inspections with remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Geographic area of the survey: in the Baltic Sea near Finland, Sweden and Denmark.On the upper deck, Nord Stream representatives Simon Bonnell and Bob Pirie showed this main piece of equipment, which looked like something out of a sci-fi movie, and is called a remotely-operated vehicle (I’ll use their abbreviation – ROV). The steel contraption is about the size of a large cabinet. Inside are small motors and video cameras, as well as the actual measuring equipment. Bob tells me that additional outboard equipment has been mounted on this ROV – gradiometers, the actual devices that allow metal objects on the sea bed to be identified.PSA061908The remote operated vehicle (ROV) on the deck of the Pollux; the gradiometer array is the blue bar attached at right (photo by Grigory Pasko)We continue our tour to the special laboratory – the research brain of the ship and of the entire expedition. A whole bunch of monitors. At one of them, specialist Erik Lindström shows us the bottom of the Baltic: lifeless – neither fish nor seaweed – an almost lunar surface. From the image on the screen one can see the structure of the sea bed.What is known about the route? That the two lines of the pipeline from Portovaya Bay of Leningrad Oblast will extend for 1200 km. The pipeline will go along the Gulf of Finland, then will cross the central part of the Baltic Sea at a depth of 200-300 meters, the Bornhom depression at a depth of 110 meters, in order to then through the Bay of Pomerania once again return to land at Lubmin (Greifswald) in GermanyIn so doing, it will pass through the Finnish, Swedish, Danish, and German exclusive economic zones. One of the newspapers, obviously, loyal to «Gazprom», once wrote: “…The route is free of any obstacles whatsoever with the exception of 16 underwater cables, which will be encountered on the route of the pipeline.”In actuality, the route is far from as devoid of obstacles as those who conceived of it would like. And it’s not about the fact that there are actually twice as many cables, but that the project has, as a minimum, three underwater “reefs”: a political one, an environmental one, and an economic one.The task of the specialists on the Pollux is to identify one part of the last two “reefs”: the geodesic aspect.The first survey of the Baltic Sea bed was carried out in the year 1998 by the company North Transgas – it was aimed at seeking out possible routes for the laying of a gas pipeline. The first survey for the needs of Nord Stream was conducted in the year 2005 by PeterGaz – a geophysical survey of the seabed in a corridor two kilometers wide. Two potential routes were chosen. In the year 2006 – yet another survey – a corridor 180 meters wide along the entire length of the proposed route. Two targets were deemed to be mines. Chemical weapons were not found. What was found included boulders, shopping carts, barrels, refrigerators, bags with peat (?), trigger mechanisms (?), automobiles, computers.The surveys of the year 2007 were conducted with the help of a sonic depth finder, sonar, a profile meter, a magnetometer, gradiometers with 12 sensors…Simon Bonnell and Bob Pirie explained that the magnetometers and gradiometers are the main components of the underwater survey. The ROV is unique – there are only 6 such devices in the world.We continued our tour of the ship. Having served 20 years in the fleet, I could tell immediately that the Pollux is rather old. This could be seen from the design of the communications devices, the chairs on the captain’s bridge, the fans… But there were also traces of modernization visible: good modern computers had been set up on the bridge.pollux061908The research vessel Pollux at anchor in Rønne (photo by Grigory Pasko)Then we descended into the “nerve center” of the ship – the control console for the ROV. A bunch of monitors, all kinds of technical equipment… Specialists recount and clarify the designation of all this hardware: for the initial survey of a 2 km wide corridor, then within the 2 km strip, geophysical surveys, sonar along the sides of the corridor, software for detailed cartography and visualization of the sea bed, which has received the name Fledermaus (from the German for “flying mouse”, or “bat”)… All this, without a doubt, is interesting, but readers no doubt want specifics. And they are such: all in all, the Pollux has surveyed 4 thousand 400 km of the sea bed. The proposed route for the laying of the pipe has been divided into sectors, and these sectors have been “ironed” back and forth (there is such a term among the sailors of the trawling fleet) several times.Simon Bonnell says:We have 300% coverage of the survey data [for the intended route of the pipeline along the sea bed]. The pipeline will be installed on the seabed with a tolerance of +/- 7.5 metres – in normal areas. In other areas we have to be more strict. We have to do an extremely detailed survey with the gradiometer of the 15 metre wide corridor (7.5 metres on either side of the centre line) where the pipeline could be installed. If we were to survey just the centre line, we would not take into account the tolerances [required] when we actually install the pipeline. And if we find anything on the sea bed, we will send the ROV down and do a visual inspection of the objects – anything within +/- 25 metres of the centre line.Bob Pirie takes over:We can basically divide the route into three parts. The sea bed is extremely irregular and rocky in the Gulf of Finland. We then move into an area of deeper water, where the sea bed material is a very silty clay. That area extends right down the side of the Swedish coast. And then when we get down to near Bornholm, it’s sand. [They bring out a map and show this to me on it—G.P.] The biggest feature of the geology as far as the pipeline is concerned is the number of boulders.Simon: And the difference in the Gulf of Finland between the rock outcrop area, which is obviously very hard, and the very, very soft clays.There are rough spots in the Gulf of Finland – how to get around them?Bob: There is going to be no blasting. The first thing to say is that we will lay the pipe where nothing needs to be done.Simon: If you have a survey corridor, and you have outcrops – high relief and low relief – ideally, you select a pipeline route that goes through the smoothest terrain. Because if you have smooth terrain, you have to do the least amount of work on the sea bed, so the environmental impact is minimal. The radius of curvature of the pipe itself – how much you can curve it – is limited to the properties of the steel and of the soil: if you’re laying a steel tube and you want to bend it, you’re relying on the friction you have between the pipe and the soil, and also the tension that you have to put on the pipe from the lay barge: when they’re laying the pipe, they hold it with quite a lot of tension so the pipe is safe in its catenary – its S-curve. The greatest radius of curvature we normally try to use is around 4000 to 5000 meters. In the more challenging areas, we have decreased it to 3000 on occasion.Simon, finding himself in his professional element, begins to excitedly draw schemes and graphs. I try not to forget about my own profession, and ask: who is the design engineer, who will determine precisely how the pipe will be laid?It turns out that selected as designer is the Italian firm Snamprogetti. Then the conversation turns to a discussion of how in problem areas, gravel will be piled under the pipe to provide an elevated bed for it to rest on. Moreover, if these sections are long, then the gravel needs to be in place before the pipe itself is laid. Everything needs to be done in such a way so that the pipeline would function reliably and precisely for 50 years.And what will happen in 50 years? Who is going to take the pipe out from under the sea?This question is clearly unexpected for my interlocutors. Both of them suddenly fall silent, trying to figure out what they should answer. They responded: we – are geodesists, the rest – is not our business.To survey the seabed and to report that the pipeline can be laid – such is your task?No! [exclaims Simon], my role is to survey the corridor to acquire the data that is used by the design engineers to do the analysis. And they say whether the pipeline can be laid within that corridor. Their phase of the work has already begun. They were contracted in the beginning of 2007, and they work hand in hand with us all the way through …We are planning that all the detailed survey work will be done by the end of June. That provides the data for the detailed design. …When we come to install the pipeline, the lay barge is held on the sea bed by a number of anchors. We have to make sure that there is no adverse impact on the environment from any of these anchors, so we will also conduct an anchor corridor survey, with all the geophysical equipment you see here today, for a corridor of between 800 and 1000 metres either side of the pipeline route – another layer of survey data.The first pipe is supposed to be laid in the sea in September 2009, but you keep talking about some kind of additional studies…We are targeting first gas in 2011. As you are aware, we have to go through a detailed permiting phase for this pipeline. And the commencement of the pipeline construction works is dependent on receiving the installation permits.Do you have doubts about getting the permission?We are doing a very thorough design project. I have no doubt that we will get permission. But my role is – I’m responsible for the surveys.What do you know about the “progressive solution” by the company, which has all of a sudden allowed to declare about the lack of necessity of a service platform near Gotland?My role is the survey. Snamprogetti are our design engineers, and Nord Stream together with Snamprogetti have developed the scenario that the platform is not required.pollux-2061908Bob Pirie (L) and Simon Bonnell (R) oversee the Pollux’s survey work for Nord Stream (photo by Grigory Pasko)Chemical weapons, what will you say about them?We see no evidence of chemical weapons or munitions within the survey corridor. Along the entire route. We have video coverage of the entire sea bottom – 4,400 km worth.Bob adds: Some of the things we have found have actually surprised us – two cars, a shopping trolley, numerous fridges, numerous washing machines, computers. And they were far from shore!Erik Lindström: One very interesting side-effect of this project is that this is actually the first time that you have a detailed video film of the entire Baltic from south to north. It’s never been done before.Bob: And the benefit of it is that people will be able to research it in the future and get a really good understanding of what the geology is right along the route.There’s a lot of evidence of fishing activity. The area around Bornholm has been heavily fished. The sea bed is virtually flat and featureless – except for the marks made by trawlers.Will trawling nets get caught on the pipe?Trawlers are not supposed to trawl pipelines – it’s an international law. But inevitably they do, because by putting a pipeline in, you’re creating an artificial reef that allows fish to breed. Nord Stream is educating the fishermen in each country about the pipeline.After a couple of hours we had to say our goodbyes: the ship set off to sea before our eyes, while Simon flew back to Switzerland, from where he had specially flown in just to meet with us.I made the following conclusions for myself: the specialists on the Pollux are top-notch. It is not for naught that Simon, for example, has conducted such surveys all over the world: in the Black, Mediterranean, and Philippine Seas, in Gibraltar and the Gulf of Mexico… In his opinion, the bottom of the Baltic isn’t the best. A particular problem is the Gulf of Finland. It is good that the Baltic is a shallow sea (the Black Sea, for example, is up to 2150 meters deep in places; here, the depth is mainly in the 100-200 meter range). This allows the obtaining of sufficiently detailed data about the characteristics of the seabed.I also understood that despite the assurances of the geodesists, the laying of pipes through the sea is of course going to cause damage to the environment. The fact that the sea is not deep is good for the pipe-layers, but not for the fish. The stocks of cod, for example, have fallen by nearly 90% here over the past 25 years. Immediately before the coast of the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the pipeline will be laid through several nature preserves. In so doing, it will be necessary to dredge out the Greifswald Lagoon, the depth of which comprises a mere three meters, in order that the pipe-laying barge can operate there.And it also occurred to me: it would be good if such vessels and such specialists as I saw on the Pollux were involved in scientific and environmental expeditions, and not only purely commercial ones.