PARIS, March 1 (UPI) -- Gaz de France Suez on Monday joined the Gazprom-dominated Nord Stream natural gas pipeline project, further diversifying the project's ownership structure.
GDF Suez Chief Executive Officer Gerard Mestrallet and Gazprom head Alexei Miller Monday in Paris signed a deal that foresees the French acquiring a 9 percent stake in the Nord Stream consortium. They will also receive around 1.5 billion cubic meters of Russian gas per year starting in 2015.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, who is on a three-day visit to France, took part in the signing ceremony.
Nord Stream is a 750-mile natural gas pipeline directly linking Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea to bypass transit countries in Eastern and Central Europe.
"Nord Stream is a strategically important pipeline for Europe," Miller said. "The value of the project is difficult to overestimate, as it will be an additional guarantor of energy security for millions of consumers."
Currently, most of the Russian gas arrives in Europe via transit pipelines through Ukraine, a country that has had shaky relations with Russia. Two major Russian-Ukrainian rows over prices temporarily halted deliveries to European customers.
A joint European-Russian project long planned, construction for the $11 billion pipeline is due to begin next month, with the first stream expected to go online in 2011 or 2012. It's designed to eventually deliver up to 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year to Europe, enough for around 25 million households.
State-controlled Russian energy giant Gazprom holds the majority in the Nord Stream consortium with 51 percent, Germany's Wintershall and Eon Ruhrgas own 20 percent each with Dutch Gasunie holding the remaining 9 percent. GDF Suez is expected to acquire 4.5 percent each from Wintershall and Eon Ruhrgas.
Miller said the new cooperation would "help develop the energy sector of the entire continent and be another factor in the success of the long-term Russo-French partnership in the gas sphere."
Nord Stream has been mentioned by the European Commission as a priority energy project but has run into opposition from individual European states, including Poland and the Baltic countries. Moreover, environmental concerns have delayed the permitting process.
Last year, governments in Germany, Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Finland gave their green light to the pipeline, with a regional Finnish environmental agency giving the final OK last month. The construction had been held up by concerns that the laying of the pipes could damage marine life and stir up toxins held in chemical weapons dumped into the Baltic Sea over the past decades.
Meanwhile, Gazprom and European utilities are involved in another major pipeline project.
France's EDF is in discussions with Gazprom and Italian energy company ENI to join the pipeline project, which would deliver gas to Austria and Italy via the Black Sea and Bulgaria. Work on South Stream is due to start in late 2010.