The medieval Swedish port of Visby has closed for the season. The wealthy party kids of Stockholm have long since left their summer playground. The streets are deserted save for a handful of reporters, soon to be zipped-up in sweltering, rubber-lined survival suits and flown by a Superpuma helicopter to the Castoro Sei, a semi-submersible, 499-foot-long (152 meters) floating steel island with two rotating cranes and a helipad.
The Castoro Sei’s 330-strong multinational crew of engineers and technicians are laying the second leg of the world's longest subsea natural-gas pipeline. The conduit, called Nord Stream, snakes its way across 761 miles of Baltic sea, joining Vyborg, Russia, to Lubmin on the German coast. At a cost of 7.4 billion euros ($11 billion), it will deliver Siberian natural gas into the heart of Western Europe, crucially avoiding a politically fraught passage through Ukraine. Flowing at capacity, the link could supply the entire gas consumption of France.
It's a Herculean and controversial project. Russian gas that flowed reliably to Europe throughout the Cold War is now seen by the European Union in a very different light. Successive halts in deliveries across Ukraine, the transit country for 80 percent of Russian gas to Europe, culminated in severe mid-winter shortages in southeast Europe in January 2009.
Gas prices spiked in the West as traders feared shortages. Relations between Moscow and Brussels soured. Now the European Commission says it aims to cut dependence on Russian fuel. Gazprom, Russia's export monopoly, is eyeing China and South Korea to ensure a future market for its most important resource.
Environmentalists said Nord Stream would pass too close to Gotland's sensitive bird life and would endanger marine species. Some said it would stir up dormant toxic chemicals and disturb sea currents. World War II graves might be threatened, the European parliament heard. Unexploded ordnance was detonated, ancient shipwrecks discovered.
Russia insisted Europe needed the gas, and political heavyweights including former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder steered the project to fruition amid accusations it was a stitch-up between former KGB agent Vladimir Putin and Nord Stream's managing director, Matthias Warnig, an ex-Stasi officer.
Despite the wrangling and politics and uncertain future, here we are, descending through clouds amid the roar of the dual-engine helicopter, aiming for an obscured floating pipelaying factory and hoping the pilot can see more beneath the gloom than we can.
The 33-year-old Castoro Sei has laid many of the North Sea's now-ageing pipes. It eased steel tubes to the floor of the Mediterranean for routes that stretch between North Africa and Europe, and built the Dolphin link between Qatar and the U.A.E. in the warmer waters of the Persian Gulf.
Stints on board usually last two weeks, with work broken into 12-hour shifts. Thais, Ukrainians, Filipinos, Turks and Italians rub shoulders far from home as the ship pushes forward, covering a mile a day.
Here, thirty-nine-foot sections of concrete-coated steel pipes weighing as much as 30 tons each are beveled, welded, checked and numbered. Sparks fly, arc lights flash and alarms sound constantly as machines grind and whirr, and pipe after pipe journeys through the vessel's maze of conveyors before slipping silently into the depths of the Baltic.
The steel island powers inexorably forward, laying a new foundation for European energy that will forever remain hidden from view.