Finnish environmental officials on Friday gave permission for a Baltic natural gas pipeline, paving the way for construction of the euro7.4 billion ($10.6 billion) project between Russia and Germany.
Russian-German joint venture Nord Stream AG had earlier received required permits from Denmark, Sweden and Russia, through whose waters the pipeline will pass.
Construction of the 750-mile (1,200-kilometer) pipeline is expected to begin in April. Due to be completed in 2011, it will carry some 1.9 trillion cubic feet (55 billion cubic meters) of natural gas a year from the Russian port of Vyborg to the German port of Greifswald.
The southern Finnish Regional State Administrative Agency said that it had granted Nord Stream a permit to build the pipeline through Finland's economic zone in the Baltic Sea. "The gas pipeline will comprise two pipelines occupying 375 kilometers (230 miles) of Finland's EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone)," it said, adding that had given the company "permission to commence work before the decision is due to enter into force."
Since the European Union in 2000 recognized the plans as a "project of common interest," it has generated heated debate in the region, mainly over security concerns and possible environmental effects on the fragile maritime environment of the Baltic Sea.
Environmentalists and some government officials worry that the construction could lead to toxins and weapons being stirred up from the seabed in one of the world's most polluted seas. At a meeting of leaders from the nine Baltic Sea states on Wednesday, Russian prime Minister Vladimir Putin dismissed environmental concerns and expressed surprise at the "emotional response" to the Nord Stream project.
He said the company had spent more than euro100 million ($135 million) on researching environmental impacts, making it the largest such study in the region.
"We believe the Nord Stream pipeline will be absolutely safe and reliable and a good supplier of natural gas to Europe and make our (area) more stable," he told some 500 participants at a Baltic Sea environmental summit in Helsinki.
Russia's Gazprom holds 51 per cent of Nord Stream, while German energy companies E.ON Ruhrgas AG and Wintershall AG each have a 20 per cent share. Dutch company Nederlandse Gasunie NV holds the remaining 9 per cent.