MOSCOW/WARSAW, Nov 6 (Reuters) Dutch company Gasunie joined the Nord Stream gas pipeline project on Tuesday despite mounting concerns from Poland and other countries over the plan to take Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany.
Gasunie became the fourth partner in the 5 billion euro (.2 billion) project, led by Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom with 51 percent and involving German firms BASF and E.ON .
The deal, under which Gasunie will acquire a 9 percent stake from the German partners, was signed at talks between Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
''The participation of the Dutch company in the project makes it truly multilateral and creates better conditions for its implementation,'' Putin said after the signing ceremony.
''I'm sure today's deal is a step forward in strengthening Europe's energy security,'' Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said.
But in Poland, prime minister-in-waiting Donald Tusk said he hoped the project would be abandoned and there were signs this could happen soon.
Gazprom, the world's largest gas producer, supplies a quarter of Europe's gas needs and plans to further increase deliveries in the years to come.
Many European politicians have called for diversification away from reliance on Russian exports following gas and oil supply cuts in the past two years due to Moscow's disputes with transit states Ukraine and Belarus.
Gazprom estimates Nord Stream will be able to cover a quarter of Europe's incremental gas demand by annually shipping 22.5 billion cubic metres to Germany and onward to Europe, starting early next decade.
But the Russian gas export monopoly also warned it could face delays in clearing the project with Baltic Sea littoral states.
PROJECT DELAYED Interfax news agency quoted Nord Stream's technical director, Sergei Serdyukov, as saying the start of construction of the underwater link had been delayed by six months to July 2009, while first deliveries had been postponed by two months to Nov. 30, 2010.
He said some countries in the Baltic region had delayed clearance of the project. He did not specify which countries.
Gazprom has previously said the Nord Stream group was struggling to get permission from German officials to build an onshore section of the pipeline in Germany that will distribute gas to European consumers.
Problems with German officials emerged amid a debate in the European Union about whether to allow major energy suppliers to control distribution assets in the EU, Gazprom has said. The Russian company is keen to expand into distribution.
Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Sweden have raised ecological and other concerns about the Nord Stream project as it is set to further deepen Europe's dependence on Russian gas.
Poland's Tusk told a news conference the scheme might be dropped.
''This initiative, this project, has not been prepared well,'' said Tusk, who is due to be nominated prime minister this week.
''I hope and I hear some signals that in the nearest future the sponsors of the project would be ready to seriously correct it,'' he added, without elaborating.
Poland, through which Russian gas now flows, fears the pipeline bypassing its territory would enable Russia to cut off its gas supplies while continuing to deliver to Western Europe.
The undersea pipeline has been one of main areas of friction between EU neighbours Poland and Germany in recent years and Poland has insisted on alternative routes for the link.
Marcel Kramer, CEO of Gasunie, said he believed Nord Stream would only improve Europe's energy security.
''The project is of crucial importance for stable energy supplies to Europe especially when the region's own production is declining,'' Kramer said in a joint statement with Gazprom.
Under the deal with Gasunie, Gazprom has received an option to buy 9 percent in another Dutch firm, BBL Company, set up to build and operate a pipeline from the Netherlands to Britain.
Gasunie owns 60 percent of BBL, with E.ON Ruhrgas and Belgium's Fluxys owning 20 percent each.
REUTERS PDT KP2050