Estonia's government decided Thursday not to allow a German-Russian consortium to conduct a seabed survey in the country's territorial waters as part of its plans for an undersea gas pipeline.
The decision will not block plans for a 1,200-kilometer - or 750-mile - pipeline, which will deliver natural gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. But it does prevent the consortium, Nord Stream, from considering a route that passes a few hundred meters into Estonian territorial waters. Experts say that section of seabed might provide a more environmentally safe route for that part of the pipeline.
"Each coastal country has full sovereignty and a right to make decisions involving its own waters," Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said at a news conference to explain the decision. "Furthermore, we think the Baltic Sea is not the proper place for such a pipeline."
The EUR 5 billion (US$7 billion) project has a 2010 launch date. The current route proposal, approved last year by the consortium, would not take the pipeline into Estonia's territorial waters and would not be affected by Thursday's decision.
Switzerland-based Nord Stream AG said its request to carry out a geological survey in Estonian waters was in response to a Finnish request for the company to explore ways to minimize the project's potential environmental impact, said a company spokesman, Jens Muller.
Finnish experts believe that part of the seabed could be flatter and thus more environmentally sound for the pipeline, Muller explained. "We're talking about a distance of several hundred meters" into Estonian territory, he said.
Several other coastal nations have joined Finland in expressing concern that the pipeline could damage the Baltic Sea's delicate ecosystem.
The project has been highly unpopular in Estonia. More than 90 percent of respondents to several recent surveys were against granting permission to Nord Stream for the seabed study.
The issue created tension between the two parties in Estonia's coalition government.
Relations between Estonia and Russia took a hit this year after the Baltic state removed a Soviet war memorial - which held deep meaning for ethnic Russians - from downtown Tallinn.
Russia's state gas monopoly Gazprom owns 51 percent of Nord Stream, while German energy companies E.On Ruhrgas AG and Wintershall AG each hold 24.5 percent in the consortium.