Mysterious explosions and gas leaks: what we know about pipeline breaks in Europe

Earlier this week, three separate leaks were discovered in two giant gas pipelines in Russia. Pipelines filled with fuel, and ruptures produced gas bubbles half a mile wide that rose to the surface of the Baltic Sea near the Danish island of Bornholm.

Explosions had been detected nearby just before the leaks occurred, and European governments have yet to identify the cause of the pipeline leaks, known as Nord Stream I and Nord Stream II. Political leaders in Europe and the United States have suggested that the incident was an act of sabotage.

Speculation has pointed to Russia, whose state-controlled energy company Gazprom is the main owner of the pipelines. A spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Dmitri S. Peskov, dismissed the accusations of Russian involvement as “stupid” and pointed the finger at the United States.

The situation bears the hallmarks of a spy thriller. But analysts say damaging the pipelines could be a significant escalation in the indirect energy war that has been waged since the fighting in Ukraine began, a battle that could have dire consequences for millions of homes and businesses across Europe. Indeed, whoever damaged the pipelines may have intended to show Europeans that “nowhere is safe,” said Helima Croft, director of commodities strategy at RBC Capital Markets.

The two main lines were built to carry gas under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany.

Nord Stream 1, which began operations in 2011, was until recently the main conduit for bringing gas to Germany, enough to supply more than half of the country’s annual consumption and still pass some on to its neighbors. The pipeline is approximately 760 miles long, most of it underwater.

Construction was completed last year on the second line, Nord Stream 2, which was intended to double those flows, providing a large, modern line to North West Europe. But it never became fully operational: The German government shelved the project in February, just as Russia began invading Ukraine.

Although European countries have reduced their consumption of natural gas in response to high prices and pleas from their governments, the fuel remains vitally important for heating homes and keeping businesses running.

None of the pipelines were actively transporting gas at the time of the incidents. Gazprom has recently cut Nord Stream 1, citing technical problems. Critics have dismissed the move as a political move by Russia as fighting in Ukraine drags on.

In some respects, pipeline shutdown serves no immediate purpose for anyone.

And, on the surface, it is not clear why Moscow would seek to harm facilities that cost Gazprom billions of dollars to build and maintain. The leaks are expected to delay any chance of receiving income from the fuel passing through the pipelines.

On the other hand, the natural gas market is scared, which helps Russia by raising the price of its gas. On Monday, European gas futures prices had fallen by nearly half from their August high. After news of the leaks, they rose nearly 20 percent to about 205 euros (or $191) per megawatt-hour, about five times the level of a year ago.

After months of gains and volatility, energy markets had recently begun to calm as optimism grew that Europe could stave off shortages this winter by finding alternative supplies and filling up gas storage facilities.

The ruptures could also be a reminder from Moscow that if European countries maintain their support for Ukraine, they risk sabotaging vital energy infrastructure. Experts have warned for years about the danger posed by potential attacks. Analysts say any disruption could spell trouble because European countries that have been dependent on Russian gas, such as Germany and Austria, have little room for error.

Over the past year, Gazprom and Russia have taken steps such as altering flows in the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which analysts say were aimed at increasing political tensions and energy prices.

This incident has sent chills through markets because it highlights that there is a “disruption risk” in pipelines not controlled by Russia, said Massimo Di Odoardo, vice president of gas research at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consulting firm.

Damaged pipelines spew natural gas, which consists largely of methane, a central contributor to global warming.

As of Wednesday, more than half of the fuel that was in the pipes had leaked, according to Kristoffer Böttzauw, director of the Danish Energy Agency. By Sunday, it could all be gone.

The cost of the leaks could amount to the equivalent of 32 percent of Denmark’s annual emissions, said Böttzauw, adding: “There is a significant climate impact because methane is many times more damaging to the climate than CO2.”

Antoine Rostand, co-founder of Kayrros, which uses satellites to track methane leaks from oil wells and gas processing facilities, estimated that the damaged pipelines had released an amount comparable to a day’s worth of methane emissions from industry. of oil and gas worldwide.

Scientists hope that the gas, which rushes to the surface and disperses into the atmosphere, will not have a major impact on plant and animal life in the waters around the leak.

The pipes are constructed of steel encased in concrete so they can withstand underwater pressures. In other words, it takes a lot of force to damage them.

“A gas leak of this nature is extremely rare,” Böttzauw said. “Three gas leaks in one accident are unlikely to occur within 24 hours.”

Swedish seismologists on Monday detected two separate underwater explosions near where the leaks were later identified. Both Nord Stream 1 lines were damaged, while only one of the Nord Stream 2 lines was broken, meaning that, at least in theory, gas could flow through the second line.

Hans Liwang, a professor at the Royal Swedish Institute of Technology, said examining the size of the crater in the seabed and the damage to the pipes could provide answers about the size of the explosive charge and the location of the explosions.

“We will probably be able to find out where this explosive device was placed by looking at the traces at the bottom,” he told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

But he added that the gas leak could have destroyed important evidence, especially if, as some have speculated, the sabotage was carried out using drones or underwater divers.

Danish authorities said Wednesday that a criminal investigation was underway to determine the cause of the breakup. Once that’s complete, it’s unclear how long it will take to repair the damage.

An official at a European pipe-laying company said work could continue only after safe conditions had been established, including by removing gas or seawater from the pipeline.

Western sanctions imposed on Russia may also complicate cleanup and repair efforts because contractors may not want to do the work. In addition, Gazprom no longer honors commercial commitments and contracts, so it is unclear who would pay the costs.

Although Russia has throttled its exports, its natural gas continues to reach Europe through the Ukraine and other pipelines. If the war in Ukraine continues to go badly for Moscow, Gazprom could increase the pressure by cutting these supplies.

A network of other pipelines from Algeria, Libya and Azerbaijan underpin the economies of European countries and could be vulnerable to sabotage along their vast stretches. Whichever actor hit the Nord Stream pipelines could have been sending a message to Norway, which has replaced Russia as the European Union’s big pipeline supplier. Norway is also a critical supplier of gas to Britain.

It may not be a coincidence that a pipeline from Norway to Poland known as the Baltic Pipe opened on Tuesday. It was conceived to alleviate Warsaw’s dependence on Russia and passes close to where the leaks are.

Energy has become a battlefield in the war for Ukraine. Putin has already shown that he is willing to scrap trade relations with countries like Germany, which took decades to establish, in the hope of bending them to his will.

And, as the fighting has progressed, the energy infrastructure in Ukraine has been repeatedly attacked by Russia.

After losing ground to a Ukrainian offensive this month, Russia unleashed a flurry of rocket and missile attacks on Ukrainian power plants and the country’s power grid. Also this month, a Russian missile struck just over 300 meters from the nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, according to Ukraine’s state-owned nuclear power company, Energoatom.

Throughout the summer, Ukrainian officials accused the Russian military of attacking a stretch of high-voltage power lines connecting another nuclear complex, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, to the Ukrainian power grid. They said the motive had been to deprive Ukraine of electrical power from the plant.

Attacking pipelines could be another step on the road to energy warfare. “It is clearly an escalation of the conflict that is really scary,” said Rostand, CEO of Kayrros.

stanley cane reported from London, the report was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine; Melissa Eddy of Berlin; cristina anderson from Bastad, Sweden; Y Jasmine Nielsen from Copenhagen.