Give Me a Crash Course in... the Nord Stream leaks

The likely sabotage of two pipelines probably marks the end of the massive project to convey Russian gas to Germany and beyond

How serious are these gas leaks?

Natural gas has been pouring into the Baltic Sea from both Nord Stream pipelines since Monday. There are four massive leaks; two in Danish waters and two in Swedish waters. It probably marks the end of what was once regarded as a great trans-European project to convey vast amounts of gas from Russia to Germany and beyond.

As the Ukraine war escalated, the fate of the pipelines, which run in parallel, became increasingly precarious. Nord Stream 1 has been out of operation since early September, while the more recent Nord Stream 2, built at a cost of €15 billion, has never been activated. Both, however, were loaded with gas when ruptures took place.

Russia and Nato allies have traded blame on who damaged the pipelines, which are part-owned by the Russian state and European energy companies. Russia’s foreign ministry claimed the blasts had occurred in territory “fully under the control” of US intelligence agencies.

Could the leaks have been caused by accident or a natural phenomenon?

An accident is highly unlikely, though they run through a very busy area for shipping. Equally, the possibility of an earthquake has been ruled out. Seismologists recorded underwater blasts near the island of Bornholm on Monday, suggesting a deliberate act of sabotage.


If it’s sabotage, and Russia is responsible, is the timing significant?

For Russia to destroy its own infrastructure and a political asset would seem to defy logic. The aggressor in the Ukraine war, however, is running out of conventional military options on the ground, especially as winter approaches. Such an act could be regarded as so-called hybrid warfare – an effort to undermine democratic functions, disrupt normal life and sow chaos and uncertainty.

Can the pipelines be repaired?

With such large volumes of methane being released, it is not possible to approach sites yet. All the while, the release of such large volumes of the greenhouse gas, which has 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a short period, is worrying from a climate change perspective.

Greenpeace estimates the leaks could have the effect of releasing almost 30 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, which is more than two-thirds of Denmark’s annual emissions.

Gas leaks from the Nord Stream 1 pipeline are likely to be halted on Monday, the pipeline’s operator said on Thursday. A spokesman for the Nord Stream AG company said it was not possible to provide any forecasts for the pipeline’s future operation until the damage had been assessed.

Germany’s security agencies believe the damage has made the offshore pipelines “unusable forever”.

What are the implications in the context of Europe’s energy crisis?

Germany has announced its intention to wean itself off Russian gas completely, as have many of its neighbours, while Gazprom has wound down its deliveries to almost zero.

Some European politicians suggested Russia could have carried out the blasts with the aim of causing further havoc with gas prices or demonstrating its ability to damage Europe’s energy infrastructure.

This week’s developments sent gas prices to new heights in Europe but also underlined the need to secure Europe’s energy networks.

The reality is that the EU is already some way along a path of living with no Russian oil and gas. Germany is banking on imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Middle East, stalling the decommissioning of nuclear power plants and placing a big bet on hydrogen.

Are there wider security implications?

Most definitely yes, not just for other gas infrastructure such as the recently-opened Baltic Pipe linking Norway’s North Sea assets with Poland but for other power interconnectors and communications cables throughout Europe. Communications cables are of critical importance to Ireland, for instance, notably through transatlantic links.

The leaks are profoundly disturbing from an environmental, energy and security perspective. And it’s hard to disagree with the verdict of Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg: “All currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless and irresponsible acts of sabotage.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times