London — A Russian pipelaying vessel expected to complete the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is now headed for Northern European waters, S&P Global Platts trade flow software cFlow showed Friday.
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The Akademik Cherskiy has been widely billed as a replacement for the Allseas' vessels that laid the majority of the 55 Bcm/year line before US sanctions in December last year forced the Swiss company to halt work.
Just 160 km of Nord Stream 2 is left to lay in Danish waters out of the total 2,460 km length.
The Akademik Cherskiy -- which has the dynamic positioning capabilities requested by the Danish license to operate -- left the port of Nakhodka in eastern Russia in early February.
It has since travelled through Southeast Asia and around the Cape of Good Hope before moving northward up Africa's western coast and now reaching the waters off northern Spain.
The Nord Stream 2 operating company, asked by Platts to confirm whether the Akademik Cherskiy was the vessel earmarked to complete the pipeline, said only that it was "actively looking for solutions" to finish the pipelaying work.
"All other works like the completion of landfalls and offshore works for stabilizing the pipeline continue as planned," a spokesman for Nord Stream 2 said Friday.
"We and the companies supporting our project are convinced that the soonest possible commissioning of the pipeline is in the interest of Europe's energy security," he added.
Five European companies have helped fund the Gazprom-owned pipeline -- Germany's Uniper and Wintershall Dea, Shell, Austria's OMV and France's Engie.
Russia had planned to bring Nord Stream 2 online by the end of 2019, but first permitting issues in Denmark and then the US sanctions meant the project was delayed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the pipeline should become operational by the first quarter of 2021 at the latest and that Russia has the capability to complete the pipeline without international assistance.
Platts Analytics believes that the pipeline should be commissioned before then -- likely in the fourth quarter of 2020 -- and ramp up to full capacity by Q3 2021.
"Ever since Allseas was scared off Nord Stream 2 by US sanctions, Platts Analytics has assumed Akademik Cherskiy would have to finish the job," analyst Ornela Figurinaite said Friday.
Figurinaite said flows through Nord Stream 2 would average around 54 million cu m/d in Q4 once commissioned, with Gazprom having to continue to rely on Ukraine for additional exports to Europe until year-end.
There have been reports, though, that the vessel may need further work to prepare it for the Nord Stream 2 pipelaying, with an industry source saying Friday there was a chance that it could be headed for a shipyard near St. Petersburg for more modernization work.
There has also been speculation that the US government could be preparing more sanctions to target Nord Stream 2 in a bid to stop the pipeline being completed.
Andriy Kobolyev, CEO of Ukraine's Naftogaz Ukrayiny and one of the most vocal opponents of Nord Stream 2, said in early March he hoped the US government would help to kill off the project permanently.
"[The sanctions on] Nord Stream 2 was one of the major steps that was taken and we hope the US government will continue in the same direction," Kobolyev said.
"The game is not over yet. The Russians will try to create their own technical capacity to finish the pipeline. We are currently discussing -- also here -- to see how to make sure that that project is actually dead," he said.
Nord Stream 2 -- which has been criticized by the US, the European Commission, Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe for focusing too much European gas import capacity on one route and one source --- would double the Russia-Germany subsea gas export corridor to 110 Bcm/year if completed.