Europe investigates unexplained gas leaks in Nord Stream pipelines

BERLIN – European authorities are investigating mysterious leaks on two currently closed Russian natural gas pipelines to Germany, raising concerns about the safety of critical energy infrastructure.

The incidents have no impact on Europe’s gas supply, as both connections are currently not in use. Germany halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in February due to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, while Moscow this month indefinitely halted flows via Nord Stream 1. However, experts said the gas leak could be harmful to the climate.

The Nord Stream pipelines have been at the heart of an escalating economic war between Moscow and the West that has pushed gas prices to record highs and threatens to cripple European industry.

Western officials say the Kremlin has weaponized its gas supplies to Europe to punish governments for their support for Ukraine. Russia blames Western sanctions for its shutdown of Nord Stream 1, the largest gas pipeline connecting Russia to Europe.

Germany put the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 on hold in February.


Photo:

Associated Press

On Tuesday, the Swedish Maritime Administration announced that it had discovered a total of three leaks in both pipelines in Swedish and Danish waters outside the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. The administration issued navigational warnings that ships should stay 5 nautical miles away from the area. It also said planes should stay at a safe altitude of 1,000 meters, or 3,280 feet, above the site.

It is currently unclear what caused the leak, authorities said, but the incident raised fears of a possible act of sabotage and raised questions about the security of Europe’s energy infrastructure.

“We faced an act of sabotage,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was quoted as saying by Poland’s National News Agency. “We do not know all the details of what happened, but we clearly see that it is an act of sabotage, an act that probably marks another step in the escalation of the situation in Ukraine.”

Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told DR that although it was too early to conclude what happened, “it is an extraordinary situation, there are three leaks, and therefore it is difficult to imagine that it can be accidental.”

The Kremlin said on Tuesday it was extremely concerned by the news, calling the incident “an unprecedented situation that requires an urgent investigation.” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, said the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines could be the result of sabotage, although it was impossible to know before the results of the investigation were published.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines could be a result of sabotage.


Photo:

SPUTNIK/via REUTERS

In response to the incident, Denmark is raising the level of preparedness for the electricity and gas sector.

– Breakage of gas lines is extremely rare, and therefore we see reason to raise the preparedness level as a result, says Director of the Danish Energy Agency, Kristoffer Böttzauw. “We will ensure thorough monitoring of Denmark’s critical infrastructure in order to strengthen security of supply going forward.”

Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at Brussels think tank Bruegel, said a sabotage action could either be aimed at Russia or perpetrated by Russia.

Russia may be seeking to “create further stress on the EU gas market, even though flows through Nord Stream have already been cut off,” he said. “Or as a signal that Russia is forever breaking with Western Europe and Germany.”

The incidents come as a new gas pipeline between Norway and Poland was inaugurated on Tuesday. A sabotage on Nord Stream around the launch of the new connection would be symbolic, said Mr Tagliapietra.

“In any case, this is a stark reminder of the risk to Europe’s gas infrastructure,” he said.

Analysts said an investigation would take a long time as it would involve submarines exploring the seabed where the pipelines are laid.

Both the German and Danish authorities said the incidents had no impact on security of supply.

The German economy, which was dependent on Russia for more than half of its gas imports before the Ukraine war, has since come under pressure as Moscow has limited supplies. Still, Germany’s gas reserves are around 91% full, giving the country a safety cushion ahead of winter.

Western leaders are bracing for the possibility that Russian natural gas flowing through the central Nord Stream pipeline may never return to full levels. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday explains what an energy crisis could look like in Europe and how it could ripple through the world. Illustration: David Fang

While the pipelines are not in use, they contain gas under pressure. Experts do not see any significant environmental danger to the seabed because the gas is not toxic and would mostly bubble to the surface. Populations nearby are also not at any risk, the Danish authorities said.

From there, however, methane, the largest component of natural gas, could escape into the air and contribute to global warming.

“There is reason to fear that significant amounts of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane have already leaked into the atmosphere,” said Sascha Müller-Kraenner, executive director of Environmental Action Germany.

Footage released by the Norwegian Defense Forces on Tuesday shows bubbles rising to the surface from one of the leaks. Denmark has sent a naval frigate as well as a pollution control vessel and helicopters to the area, the military says.

The Nord Stream pipelines are mostly laid along the seabed, each over 750 miles long. The pipelines are encased in concrete to guarantee their stability, according to the operator.

Russia throttled gas exports to Europe via Nord Stream 1 over the summer, blaming technical problems on Western sanctions – explanations that European governments have rejected as a pretext to punish Europe. Earlier this month, Moscow said it would suspend the pipeline indefinitely. Nord Stream 1 was first launched in 2011.

Nord Stream 2 is designed to double the flow of Russian gas directly to Germany. The pipeline was completed but never certified by the German authorities, who ultimately froze the project in February, days before Russian troops entered Ukraine.

Write to Georgi Kantchev at georgi.kantchev@wsj.com

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