Anita Nissen, Malayna Raftopoulos, and Philip Wade | 18 October 2022
In May 2021, after intense pressure from campaign groups, the Danish Environmental Agency revoked permission for the construction of the ‘Baltic Pipeline’ due to environmental concerns. Yet, in March 2022, in the context of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, work on the pipeline resumed with a new permit. This follows the January 2022 decision by the EU to consider natural gas (along with nuclear) to be a green energy source, defying accusations of greenwashing by declaring them bridge technologies to a greener future.
The ‘Baltic Pipeline’ originally received EU funding in 2018. It consists of an 850km gas pipeline from Norway through Denmark, Sweden’s exclusive economic zone in the Baltic Sea, and Poland. The development of infrastructure to facilitate the international imports of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) has, in fact, become a cornerstone of the EU’s energy policy, as its member states seek to increase gas production and wean themselves off Russian gas. This became clear in 2017 when the European Commission released the latest list of ‘Energy Projects of Common Interest’. Here, 77 projects were related to expanding natural gas infrastructure across priority corridors. Denmark is currently involved in the Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan in gas (BEMIP) and North-South gas interconnections in Western Europe (NSI West Gas). While Denmark and Spain opposed the designation of nuclear and natural gas as green energy sources, Denmark has continued with several new natural gas projects.
Despite being virtually energy self-sufficient since the 1980s, growing natural gas demands and concerns about Denmark’s energy security have placed energy development high on the Danish political agenda. In June 2017, the Danish government permitted Energinet to initiate an Open Season (binding tender) and assess the economic sustainability of the Baltic Pipeline project. Following this process, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency approved the project in July 2019, stating that the “Baltic Pipe project on land can be established and operated without unacceptable impacts on people, the environment and society, etc.” Construction began in January 2020, yet it was halted in 2021 by a public appeals panel, as the original permit lacked sufficient clarification for the protection of mice and bat breeding grounds. The EU and the Polish and Danish governments have encouraged the pipeline as a viable option to reduce costs for Danish and Polish gas users, enhance gas market trade and competition, and help both countries meet their Paris Accord commitments. From a geopolitical perspective, the pipeline also promises to reduce Polish reliance on Russian gas.
Denmark’s resumption of work on the Baltic Pipeline, with the completion date pushed back to September 2022 and full operation beginning in 2023, not only challenges the country’s green image and ambitious climate change agenda but also raises serious questions about how countries develop alternative energy supplies within the context of climate-related scarcity and heightened geopolitical insecurity. Additionally, there is a democratic challenge, as the worries of climate activists and local citizens about the project’s long-term climate and environmental impact and the effects of such constructions on their land and livelihoods have hardly been addressed in the process.
Denmark and Gas Politics: ‘Green Superpower’ Ambitions versus Realities?
Denmark has historically taken a leading role in the global push for green development, and sustainable energy is a prominent topic in its domestic and foreign policy. Following the 1973 oil crisis, the Danish government and energy industry envisioned nuclear power as a possible energy alternative. However, the Danish anti-nuclear movement’s pressure finally led the government to abandon these plans in 1985. Instead, the country started focusing on renewable energy sources for its energy security, turning Denmark into a green technology pioneer. Since then, Denmark has become a large-scale wind turbine producer and exporter, and 47% of Denmark’s 2019 electricity production was provided by wind power. Moreover, in 2020, the Danish Minister for Climate, Energy and Utilities called for Denmark to become a ‘green superpower’ capable of making “a big difference in the world.” In June of the same year, the Danish parliament adopted a climate agreement, which, among other things, entailed the quadrupling of Danish offshore wind energy production by 2030 and more significant investments in renewable energies.
Yet, while Denmark has developed an ambitious green energy and climate change agenda, some cracks exist in its green image. Critics have accused the state energy company, Ørsted, of greenwashing several problematic areas within Denmark’s energy matrix. Whilst in 2020, Denmark pledged to end oil and gas extraction by 2050, extraction is expected to increase in the coming years, peaking around 2028. Additionally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted the government to commit to temporarily increasing gas production in the North Sea by up to 25%.
Denmark has passed several controversial energy policies over the last decade, which have often conflicted with its climate ambitions. One example involves potential fracking on Danish ground: Following preliminary studies between 2010–2012, the French energy giant Total was permitted to carry out exploratory shale gas projects in Vendsyssel (Northern Denmark), leading to strong civil societal objections. Although it imposed a moratorium on fracking in 2012, the licenses issued before the ban are still valid.
Citizen Opposition to the Baltic Pipeline
Civil society has also mobilised fairly strongly against the prospect of the Baltic Pipeline, organising both disruptive and more conventional protest actions. Ever since the Danish government announced its plans to build the Baltic Pipeline across 13 municipalities on Zealand, Funen, and in Jutland, activists and local citizens mobilised against particularly the land-based construction. Environmental organisations, such as NOAH (Friends of the Earth Denmark), Climate Movement Denmark (part of 350), and Extinction Rebellion Denmark, have expressed concerns over the pipeline’s environmental and climate impacts, as it will run through three protected Natura-2000 areas, besides from arguing that the project generally conflicts with Denmark’s green climate promises.
Engaged activists also launched the Balticpipe.net campaign platform, catering to “the broad movement against new fossil infrastructure, and specifically against the construction of the gas pipeline Baltic Pipe”. Using the slogan ‘Baltic Pipeline, Nej Tak!’ (No Thanks), the campaigners argue that “the expansion of the fossil gas network is a malinvestment which, in addition to affecting thousands of local farmers and landowners, is a breach of the Paris Agreement and makes a timely and fair green transition impossible”. These local citizens have, in fact, strongly opposed the pipeline since 2017 due to the intrusion on their lands and the potential loss of livelihoods. This opposition has also been taken directly to the Danish decision-makers. In 2019, farmers and Danish agricultural umbrella associations first attempted to exert pressure on the Liberal Party’s then-Minister for Energy, Climate and Utilities, seeing as the party historically represents farmers’ interests. Following the failure of this approach, in September 2020, together with 12 agricultural umbrella associations, three landowners in Jutland sued Energinet and the Danish state, claiming that the Baltic Pipe does not have a sufficient legal basis (in terms of it being for ‘the common good’) to expropriate the farmer’s properties.
More surprisingly, the landowners and environmental activists have also created a somewhat unlikely coalition, organising joint demonstrations across Denmark, often targeting the local authorities to prod them to reject the government’s demands. Moreover, anti-pipeline activists have organised awareness campaigns, launched petitions, developed alternative energy proposals, written open letters, and protested in various other forms. Furthermore, in May 2020, the citizen proposal (Borgerforslag) ‘Cancel the decision to build the Baltic Pipe gas pipeline’ was launched. Such a proposal requires 50,000 signatures to be debated in the Danish Parliament, yet, by its deadline on November 1, it had only amassed 12,793. Despite the Danish population's generally high desire to counter climate threats, this illustrates the anti-pipeline movement’s problems in mobilising support for their cause. Besides this conventional action form, certain pipeline opponents have employed more disruptive measures. In July 2020, 15 activists were arrested after halting construction in South East Jutland by attaching themselves to machinery. A month later, there were protests against several Energinet construction sites, with the aim to “delay the project as much as possible.” Following the invasion of Ukraine, activists have begun to challenge the discourse that supports the pipeline based on the geopolitical threat of Europe’s reliance on Russian gas. Instead, they contend that moving away from fossil fuels is the only legitimate way forward while also rejecting gas as a ‘green bridge’ and Energinet’s claim that the pipeline will be able to operate decades after Denmark’s 2050 fossil fuel cut-off point by transporting ‘green gases’ from Norway. This is despite Norway having no plans to produce such gases.
Drawing on many of the frames, slogans, protest tactics and experiences of the global mobilisation against harmful extractivism activities, the Danish movement against the Baltic Pipeline should be considered part of the much larger movement that fights for the prevention of fossil fuel extraction. The Danish anti-pipeline protests indicate certain citizens’ unease with the government’s current direction for alternative energy supply, reminiscent of the 2015 anti-fracking protests led by associations such as No to Shale Gas, Greenpeace, and the Danish Society of Nature Conservation. However, despite this opposition, the Danish state still aims at going ahead with the Baltic Pipe, symbolic of the current geopolitical situation and the increasing importance of dealing with energy security.
Anita Nissen is a post-doc, Department of Politics and Society, Aalborg University
Malayna Raftopoulos is an Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Society, Aalborg University
Philip Wade is a PhD student in Peace and Development, Gothenburg University