Leaks in Russian gas pipelines raise concerns about sabotage

A series of unusual leaks on two natural gas pipelines operated by Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany have sparked concerns about sabotage and overshadowed the inauguration of a long-awaited pipeline that will bring Norwegian gas to Poland in a bid to boost Europe’s energy independence from Moscow.

Seismic stations in Sweden, Norway and Finland registered two explosions near the leaks on Monday.

Björn Lund, a seismologist at Uppsala University who is part of Sweden’s national seismic network, said the first blast was recorded in the early hours of the morning southeast of the Danish island of Bornholm. The latter and more powerful blast that night occurred northeast of the island and was equivalent to a 2.3 magnitude earthquake.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen says she cannot rule out sabotage after three leaks were discovered at Nord Stream 1 and 2. (AP)

“We know very well what an underwater explosion looks like. So in this case there is no doubt that it is not an earthquake,” Lund said.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the events “an act of sabotage”, while Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said she could not rule it out after three leaks were discovered last day on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which are filled with gas, but not deliver the fuel to Europe.

On Tuesday afternoon (Wednesday morning AEST), Frederiksen said her government viewed the gas leaks off a Danish island in the Baltic Sea as “premeditated acts”.

When asked if it was an attack on Denmark, Frederiksen replied that the leaks occurred in international waters and “the answer is therefore no”.

Danish Defense Minister Morten Bodskov travels to Brussels on Wednesday to discuss the gas leaks with NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg.

An energy confrontation over Russia’s war in Ukraine halted flows on Nord Stream 1 and prevented them from ever launching into the parallel Nord Stream 2.

Frederiksen, Morawiecki and Polish President Andrzej Duda symbolically opened a valve on a yellow tube that is part of the Baltic Pipe, a new system that will bring Norwegian gas to Poland via Denmark and the Baltic Sea.

Nord Stream 2 in a 1200 km subsea natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, running from Russia to the German Baltic Sea coast.
Nord Stream 2 in a 1200 km subsea natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, running from Russia to the German Baltic Sea coast. (9News / Orla Maher)

“The era of Russian dominance in the gas sector is coming to an end,” Morawiecki said. “A time marked by blackmail, threats and blackmail.”

No official proof of what caused the Nord Stream troubles, but in central Europe, where distrust of Russia runs high, there have been fears Moscow may have sabotaged its own infrastructure out of spite or to warn that all pipelines are vulnerable to attack . The leaks, which occurred off the coast of Denmark and Sweden, raised the stakes as to whether energy infrastructure in European waters was under attack and resulted in a small spike in natural gas prices.

“We can clearly see that this is an act of sabotage, an act that probably means another level of escalation in the situation we are dealing with in Ukraine,” Morawiecki said.

Anders Puck Nielsen, a researcher at the Center for Maritime Operations at the Royal Danish Defense College, said the timing of the leaks was “conspicuous” given the ceremony for the Baltic Pipe. He said maybe someone was trying to “send out a signal that something could happen to the Norwegian gas”.

“The arrow is pointing towards Russia,” said Puck Nielsen.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Polish President Andrzej Duda attend an opening ceremony of the Baltic Pipe in Budno, Poland. (AP)

“Nobody in the West is interested in having any kind of instability in the energy market.”

Kremlin demands Ugent investigation

The extent of the damage means the Nord Stream pipelines are unlikely to be able to transport gas to Europe this winter, even if there is the political will to bring them online, analysts at Eurasia Group said.

“Depending on the extent of the damage, the leaks could even mean a permanent closure of both lines,” write analysts Henning Gloystein and Jason Bush.

They found that subsea pipelines are designed not to be accidentally damaged and leaks are rare.

“Leaks of this size pose a serious safety and environmental hazard, especially if Russia doesn’t stop pumping gas into the system,” the analysts said.

Workers stand near the pipelines during an opening ceremony of the Baltic Pipe in Budno, Poland. (AP)

Puck Nielsen said of possible sabotage that “technically, this is not difficult. It only requires one boat. It requires some divers who know how to handle explosive devices.”

“But I think if we look at who would actually benefit from disruption, more chaos in the gas market in Europe, I think there’s basically only one player right now that actually benefits from more uncertainty and that’s Russia.” , he said.

When asked if the leaks might have been caused by sabotage, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “no version could be ruled out”.

“This is an unprecedented situation that requires urgent investigation. We are extremely concerned by this news,” he said on a conference call with reporters.

The Danish and Swedish maritime authorities issued navigational warnings after leaks were detected in the pipelines north-east and south-east of the Danish island of Bornholm.

A major disruption in the sea off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm following a series of unusual leaks on two natural gas pipelines running under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. (AP)

Denmark has put in place a restricted area to ensure ships do not approach the leaks. Ships can lose buoyancy, and there may also be a risk of ignition over the water and in the air, authorities said.

Europe is struggling for answers

The Nord Stream pipelines have been at the center of an energy conflict between Europe and Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in late February. Falling Russian gas supplies have pushed up prices and pressured governments to ease the pain of sky-high energy bills for homes and businesses as winter approaches. The crisis has also fueled fears of rationing and recession.

European countries are struggling to find other sources of gas to heat homes, generate electricity and run factories. Poland, for example, was on track to rid itself of Russian gas after years of working to secure other sources, including liquefied natural gas, or LNG, from the United States and the Middle East. Germany, on the other hand, is only now running at full speed to build LNG terminals.

A prominent element in the European Union’s quest for energy security, the Baltic Pipe is scheduled to begin transporting Norwegian gas through Denmark and along the Baltic Sea to Poland on October 1.

A leak has been discovered in the Nord Stream II gas pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. (AP)

Simone Tagliapietra, an energy expert at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, said the leaks “could not be a coincidence” and speculated they might have been caused by Russian sabotage or anti-Russian sabotage.

One possibility is that Russia will signal that it is “breaking forever with Western Europe and Germany” while Poland inaugurates its pipeline with Norway, he said.

“In any case, this is a stark reminder of the risks facing Europe’s gas infrastructure,” said Tagliapietra.

Polish energy expert Andrzej Sikora said he had warned of potential attacks on the pipeline infrastructure since Nord Stream 1 was built in 2010. The significant pressure drop caused by the leaks was clearly not the result of a “poor weld,” he told Sikora, head of think tanks Energy Studies Institute.

He is urging measures to ensure the safety of the Baltic Pipe, which intersects both Nord Stream pipelines at one point.

Ukrainian soldiers hug while the Russians retreat