U.S. senators move to tighten sanctions on delayed Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline
By Timothy Gardner and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators announced a bill on Thursday expanding sanctions on Russia's Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline and targeting the project Washington says will boost Moscow's economic and political influence in Germany and other European countries.
The Protecting Europe's Energy Security Clarification Act follows legislation signed by President Donald Trump last year, which prompted Swiss-Dutch company Allseas to halt undersea work, delaying the project.
Two Russian-owned pipe-laying vessels may now finish the remaining 100 miles (160 km) of the project, which is led by state-run Gazprom. The pipeline could be launched by late 2020 or early next year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said.
The new legislation, spearheaded by Senators Ted Cruz, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, could stop the project by expanding sanctions to include penalties on parties involved in pipe-laying activities and parties providing underwriting services, insurance or reinsurance on the project.
Cruz said it "makes clear those involved with vessels installing the pipeline will face crippling and immediate sanctions."
Shaheen said the pipeline threatens Ukraine and Europe’s energy independence and "gives Russia an opening to exploit our allies."
The bill must be passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by Trump. It adds sanctions on companies providing services or facilities for the vessels, including welding equipment, retrofitting or tethering of the ships.
Many politicians and energy companies in Germany support Nord Stream 2 as Europe's biggest economy seeks to end the use of coal and nuclear power.
The Trump administration has touted exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) as an alternative to Russian supplies, calling it "freedom gas." U.S. LNG producers are struggling due to sagging global demand.
Nord Stream 2 spokesperson Jens Mueller said European households and industries will pay "billions more" for gas if the pipeline is not built. "Decisions about European Union energy policy should be left to Europeans," Mueller said.
German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier criticized Washington last week for "escalating this sanctions threat, which is extraterritorial and thus in conflict with international law."
The pipe-laying ship Academic Cherskiy, which Moscow could use to finish Nord Stream 2, changed ownership from Gazprom Fleet to regional firm STIF, a Russian registry showed this week.
STIF was linked to a group of Gazprom companies as of April 1 but there was no data on STIF's ownership since then, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told Reuters.
The Academic Cherskiy is moored near Germany's Mukran port in the Baltic, the staging area for the pipeline's construction, Refinitiv Eikon data showed.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Vera Eckert in Frankfurt and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Timothy Gardner and Katya Golubkova; Editing by Peter Cooney, Edmund Blair, Tom Brown and Marguerita Choy)