The Environmental Case for Sanctions on Russia

Targeting Nord Stream 2 benefits the environment and human rights

A few months ago, Nord Stream 2 was an overlooked topic though the proposed gas pipeline routed under the Baltic Sea was being planned and public hearings were held; information on the project wasn’t easy to find online. Russian environmentalists in opposition to the project spent hours scanning the web for news and data. Now, with new Congress-approved U.S. sanctions targeting the project, the topic has surfaced.

Much of the discussion surrounds the European Union’s opposition to the U.S.-designed sanctions for this very reason: they target Nord Stream 2, which will deliver gas straight from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. Some European leaders have expressed their dismay and anger. “‘America first’ cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last,” intoned EU Chief Executive Jean-Claude Juncker. Though EU heavyweight Germany backs the project, many other European nations — including the three Baltic countries and Poland — do not. And of course, Ukraine, whose national security is at threat from Russia and whose economic interests are threatened by Nord Stream 2 in particular, is also opposed.

The current debate surrounding Nord Stream 2 is largely focused on economic interests: those of Europe and those of Russia. But I want to focus in on a neglected reason why Nord Stream 2 should not be able to proceed, and that is the project’s environmental impact and its inextricable connection to human rights violations.

Let’s start out with this: the Russian state is a kleptocracy. Vladimir Putin, who has been in power either as President or (quick swap!) Prime Minister for 17 years, is speculated to be the richest man in the world — not just recently in Congressional testimony by investor Bill Browder (whose attorney, Sergei Magnitsky died in Russian prison), but also by a former Kremlin advisor. Gazprom, majority-owned by the Russian government, is the sole shareholder in Nord Stream 2 AG, the project company. Who’s the CEO of Nord Stream 2 AG? Matthias Warnig, former Stasi spy and current Putin pal.

Party for rich men: Warnig (left) watches as Putin (back to camera) hugs Gerhard Schröder (center) at his birthday party (source)

Why does this matter from an environmental standpoint, or a human rights perspective? Apart from the fact that these not especially savory characters are amassing riches, Putin’s government is using its money and power to attempt to destroy what it considers to be its opposition — and that includes environmental groups and activists.

Part of this is happening through a years-long campaign against civil society being executed under Russia’s foreign agent law, which requires organizations that receive foreign funding or engage in “political activity” (broadly defined) to register as foreign agents or be saddled with oft-unsurmountable fines. This law has caused the closure of a staggering third of Russian NGOs, including some of its oldest environmental groups. And it’s not as if this persecution was a one-off: though the law came into effect in 2012, just this April, the Kola Ecological Center was targeted for, well, pretty much nothing.

Individuals are harrowingly threatened, too, for their environmental activism. Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin has been attacked by Russian state media. Nadezhda Kutepova, founder of Planet of Hopes, is still being targeted as well despite now struggling with her children in France where she received political asylum after fleeing Russia before being accused of treason. Evgenia Chirikova, defender of Khimki forest, left with her family after the state blackmailed her using her children, and now lives in Estonia. That hasn’t prevented Russia’s Channel One from still running fake hit stories on her.

Alexander Nikitin (source), Nadezhda Kutepova (source), Evgenia Chirikova and her daughter (source)

Clearly, Russia is not a safe place to be an environmental activist. While this has obvious human rights implications, it has environmental implications as well. After all, if people are targeted for protecting the environment and human health, fewer people will be likely to do so.

Back to the pipeline: suppressing environmental defenders clears the way for this, too. In Russia, the government has been sneakily clearing the way to run the pipeline through Kurgalskii Refuge, which is protected by international agreements and is home to threatened species. Happily, scientists spoke up when refuge materials were falsified in an environmental survey in a way that would allow the pipeline to pass through, though work has still begun even so.

We should care about the local environment in Russia, and stand up for environmental activists there who make tremendous efforts despite repression — but there are international ramifications stemming from this project as well. And not just geopolitical impacts (though it shouldn’t be dismissed that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — all of which border the Baltic Sea and are nervous about Russian aggression — are opposed), but environmental ones as well. Let’s not forget that Nord Stream 2 is a gas pipeline. A pipeline that enriches horrible people who repress environmentalists and one that will be transporting fossil fuel that will be burned, that will contribute to the urgent problem of climate change.

Pipes for Nord Stream 2 (source)

We’ve known the math for awhile: fossil fuel reserves account for five times more carbon than can be emitted if we have a hope of staying under two degrees Celsius warming. And it’s not looking great for us, with the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and with temperature records constantly being beaten. 2017 thus far has been the second hottest on record — and that’s without help from El Niño pushing up the mercury. Nord Stream 2 promises to supply 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas. If burned, that, according to my calculations based on EIA data, will send over 227 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Not cool.

There’s an argument that can be made that if Europe doesn’t get natural gas via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, it will burn fossil fuels from elsewhere. But the argument I am making is that not only should we not invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure (#keepitintheground!), but that we should especially not invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure that at once props up a kleptocracy that invades other countries, suppresses civil society, and targets environmental activists. Russia isn’t the only country committing these crimes, sure, but it is firmly one of them. And the current U.S. federal government doesn’t really care about climate change, sure, but if hindering new fossil fuel development is a result of these new sanctions, then great.

The U.S. sanctions, of course, are only one way to hinder this project. As noted, some European countries have also voiced their opposition. We all should coalesce around this, however: standing up for Russian environmental activists and combatting climate change means saying no to Nord Stream 2.