Sabotage suspected after leaks found on Nord Stream pipelines

View of pipe systems and shut-off devices at the gas receiving station on the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea Pipeline.

Stefan Sauer | image alliance | Getty Images

Investigations are underway into unexplained leaks affecting both the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which bring natural gas from Russia to Europe via the Baltic Sea.

Neither pipeline was pumping gas at the time of the leak: Nord Stream 1 stopped pumping gas to Europe “indefinitely” earlier this month, with Moscow’s operator saying international sanctions against Russia prevented it from carrying out essential maintenance work.

The newer Nord Stream 2 pipeline, meanwhile, has never officially opened as Germany refused to certify it for commercial operations due to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Both Europe and Russia have both said sabotage cannot be ruled out as the cause of the damage, but the finger of blame is being pointed at Moscow – which has yet to respond directly to the allegations.

For its part, Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom declined to comment on the leak when contacted by Reuters, while Nord Stream AG, the network operator, said in a statement reported by Reuters that “the destruction that occurred on the same day simultaneously on three strings of offshore the gas pipelines in the Nord Stream system are unprecedented.”

“It is not yet possible to estimate the timing of the restoration of the gas transport infrastructure,” it added.

Asked about the damaged pipelines earlier, the Kremlin spokesman said the leak was cause for concern and sabotage was a possible cause, but said it was “too early” to speculate before the results of an investigation.

“No possibility can be ruled out right now,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Nord Stream issued a statement on Monday noting that dispatchers from the Nord Stream 1 control center had “detected a pressure drop on both strands of the gas pipeline” with the causes being investigated, although it is not known if this incident is connected.

‘Severe’ security risk

Analysts say the leak represents a massive “safety and environmental hazard” and maritime authorities overseeing the affected area are scrambling to determine the extent of the problem.

Danish and Swedish authorities declared a no-shipment zone around the location of the suspected leak in their maritime zones, while Denmark raised its power and gas security level, Reuters reported earlier on Tuesday.

The leaks will remove any remaining expectations that Europe could receive gas via Nord Stream 1 before winter, analysts noted.

Henning Gloystein, director of energy, climate and resources, and senior analyst Jason Bush, both at Eurasia Group, said in a note Tuesday that while German and Danish authorities said the cause of the leak was unknown, “unplanned leaks to undersea pipelines are rare, as they are designed to avoid accidental damage.”

“Several EU sources said sabotage seemed likely. Neither pipeline was delivering commercial gas at the time of the leak, but as both pipelines were still under pressure and each has the capacity to touch about 165 million cubic meters of methane-heavy gas per day.” they said, adding: “Leaks of this magnitude are a serious security and environmental hazard, especially if Russia does not stop pumping gas into the system.”

“Depending on the extent of the damage, the leak could even mean the permanent closure of both lines,” Eurasia Group added.

On Friday, Russian energy supplier Gazprom said it would not resume its supply of natural gas to Germany through the central Nord Stream 1 pipeline, blaming a faulty turbine.

Hannibal Hanschke | Reuters

The Nord Stream gas pipelines have become a focal point of tensions between Russia and Europe in recent months, with Russia accused of weaponizing gas supplies to its neighbor in a bid to get sanctions relief.

During the summer, Gazprom announced a sporadic stoppage of gas flows to Europe, citing the need for pipeline maintenance (analysts said the stoppage of flows was designed to put pressure on Europe to avoid sanctions). Flows have now stopped entirely via the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline, again after Gazprom said sanctions prevented maintenance from being carried out, a claim widely denied by gas industry experts and Siemens, which has supplied and maintained equipment.

Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets sovereign strategist, said the claims that Russia could be behind the damage were “remarkable”.

“So a number of holes appeared in these pipelines, which are thick and deeply buried. These must be submarines, probably Russian submarines,” he said in an email, adding that it would be “unbelievable” if Russia were found to have been willing “to cause such risks to shipping in the Baltic.”

Russia has not yet responded directly to the accusations that it was behind the damage to the pipelines.

Benchmark European gas prices rose on Tuesday with Dutch TTF gas futures up over 8% to 208.44 euros per megawatt hour.

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