Putin to launch new gas link to Western Europe

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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was to attend on Tuesday the launch of the long-delayed Nord Stream pipeline that will for the first time take Russian gas directly to Western Europe.

The controversial 1,220-kilometre (760-mile) project was agreed in 2005 by then German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Putin -- at that time serving as president -- amid opposition from some other EU states.

The launch will see operators filling the pipeline with so-called "technical gas" -- essential for creating the pressure that will help pump the gas to its destination in Germany and eventually beyond.

The first Nord Stream gas is expected to reach clients at the end of October or November while the second parallel link is expected to be completed by the end of 2012.

The first branch to be launched on Tuesday starts in the northern Russian city of Vyborg on the Finnish border and emerges in the Baltic German town of Greifswald.

Russia is responsible for about a quarter of the gas consumed in the EU and bills the Baltic Sea link as a guarantee against potential supply disruptions in transit nations with which it has rocky relations such as Ukraine.

EU critics counter that this will only broaden Europe's dependence on Russian energy and harm efforts to liberalise the continent's energy market. Schroeder remains a champion of the project and now chairs the Nord Stream shareholders' committee.

Putin unexpectedly announced the impending "technical launch" of the pipeline on Monday during a regional party conference.

"Gradually, in a calm manner we are departing from the diktat of transit states," Putin said in a clear reference to Ukraine and the two neighbours' latest dispute over prices.

The Russian government said in a statement that its target list of nations for the new link includes Britain and France along with some other smaller EU states such as the Netherlands.

It added that European gas consumption should grow in the coming decade by 200 billion cubic metres per year -- a jump of 50 percent. Nord Stream would account for 55 billion cubic metres once its capacity doubles by 2013.

Russia has long been seeking ways to move gas directly to the richer European nations while bypassing former ex-Soviet nations with which it has often unpredictable ties.

But a similar project called South Stream that would run under the Black Sea to Bulgaria has encountered repeated delays and is not expected to ship its first gas until year-end 2015 at the earliest.

© 2011 AFP

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