Potential pipeline sabotage could extend Europe’s gas crisis by years

Three major holes in the Nord Stream pipelines suggest Russia is escalating its energy confrontation with Europe.
Natural gas bubbles to the surface of the Baltic Sea above a major leak in the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline, in an image captured Sept. 27 by the Danish military.
Natural gas bubbles to the surface of the Baltic Sea above a major leak in the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline, in an image captured Sept. 27 by the Danish military.
Photo: Reuters (Reuters)
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On several occasions since July, Russia has closed off the flow of natural gas through Nord Stream 1, the main pipeline delivering gas to Europe. At first, Russian authorities called it routine maintenance, then blamed sanctions. The shutdowns, though a threat to Europe’s ability to run factories and heat homes this winter, were temporary and reversible. But now it seems certain the pipeline—and its newly-built, never-used twin Nord Stream 2—will be out of commission for months at a minimum, if not years.

On Sept. 27, Danish and Swedish authorities reported three “really big” holes in the pipelines—two in NS1 and one in NS2—which run underwater through the Baltic Sea. The cause of the leaks has not been confirmed, but according to European officials was most likely an act of sabotage by Russia. The pipe itself is steel, 1.6 inches thick, coated with another 4 inches of concrete. Although fishing trawlers occasionally damage undersea telecommunication lines, it’s practically impossible for them to do the same in three separate locations on these robust pipelines on the same day. Danish seismologists reported at least two undersea explosions at the time of the leaks. As one German official put it: “Our imagination doesn’t have any scenario left in which this could not be a targeted attack.”

Did Russia sabotage the Nord Stream pipeline?

NS1 was already offline, ostensibly because of sanctions, so the leaks don’t change the near-term availability of gas on the European market. (The gas that is now leaking into the sea had been fed into the pipelines to keep them pressurized.) Russia could always have kept the pipelines shut, of course, but some analysts have suggested that Russia may have an economic motive for damaging them. Mysterious explosions would allow Russia to blame the leaks on force majeure, in order to to wriggle out of looming multi-billion-dollar legal claims by European utilities that feel ripped off by the NS1 shutdowns.

Between other pipelines and shipments of liquified gas from the US and elsewhere, Europe has managed to fill 88% of its gas storage capacity ahead of schedule. But the market this winter will be still be very tight, and futures contracts for next year immediately jumped after the leaks were discovered.

If the leaks were indeed the product of Russian sabotage—carried out by submarine, unmanned underwater drone, or combat divers—they might have been carried out in order to escalate Russia’s aggression toward the EU, which until now has centered on the economic weaponization of energy but stopped short of tangible military operations or violence. It could also be a threat to other undersea gas pipelines from Norway or Algeria; damage to those pipelines would significantly worsen Europe’s gas crunch. Norwegian authorities are already stepping up security around oil and gas infrastructure.

The leaks will take the pipelines offline for months, at a minimum. Their operator said in a statement that “it’s impossible now to estimate the timeframe for restoring operations.” If and when the pipelines are repaired, there’s no telling if Russia will cooperate on filling them. Given that Europe’s longer-term solutions to minimizing reliance on Russian gas, such as building more LNG import terminals, will take years to complete, the leaks confirm that this winter will be just the first of several with high energy prices and economic disruption.