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EU chief von der Leyen says Nord Stream leak due to 'sabotage'

The leaks emerged off the coast of Denmark and Sweden, raising the possibility of energy infrastructure being targeted in European waters.

Aerial shot of the leak
Aerial shot of the leak
Image: Norwegian Armed Forces

Updated Sep 27th 2022, 11:30 PM

EU COMMISSION PRESIDENT Ursula von der Leyen said that the leaks on the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea were an “act of sabotage”.

“Any deliberate disruption of active European energy infrastructure is unacceptable & will lead to the strongest possible response,” she said on Twitter, adding it was “paramount to now investigate the incidents, get full clarity on events & why”.

Two underwater blasts were recorded prior to the discovery of three leaks on the Nord Stream pipelines linking Russia and Europe, a Swedish seismological institute said as the unexplained leaks raised suspicions of sabotage.

The Swedish National Seismic Network recorded two “massive releases of energy” shortly prior to, and near the location of, the gas leaks off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm, Peter Schmidt, an Uppsala University seismologist, told AFP.

“The first happened at 2:03 am (12am Irish time) just southeast of Bornholm with a magnitude of 1.9. Then we also saw one at 7:04 pm on Monday night, another event a little further north and that seems to have been a bit bigger. Our calculations show a magnitude of 2.3,” Schmidt said.

“With energy releases this big there isn’t much else than a blast that could cause it,” he added.

Schmidt explained that since the releases were “very sudden” and not a “slow collapse”, the events were “in all likelihood some type of blasts”.

However the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has said today that the leaks were due to “deliberate acts” and “not an accident”.

Copenhagen expects the leaks at the pipelines, which are not operational but full of gas, will last “at least a week” – until the methane escaping from the underwater pipes runs out, the Danish energy and climate minister said at a press conference.

The Norwegian Seismic Array (NORSAR) also confirmed it had registered “a smaller explosion” in the early hours of Monday, “followed by a more powerful on Monday evening”.

The Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines have been at the centre of geopolitical tensions in recent months as Russia cut gas supplies to Europe in suspected retaliation against Western sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine.

Photos taken by the Danish military today showed large masses of bubbles on the surface of the water emanating from the three leaks located in Sweden’s and Denmark’s economic zones, spreading from 200 to 1,000 metres (656 feet to 0.62 miles) in diameter.

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

An energy standoff over Russia’s war in Ukraine halted flows on Nord Stream 1 and prevented supplies from ever starting in the parallel Nord Stream 2.

Ms Frederiksen, Mr Morawiecki and Polish President Andrzej Duda symbolically opened a valve on a yellow pipe belonging to the Baltic Pipe, a new system that will carry Norway’s gas across Denmark and the Baltic Sea to Poland.

“The era of Russian domination in the gas sphere is coming to an end,” Mr Morawiecki said. “An era that was marked by blackmail, threats and extortion.”

No official presented evidence of what caused the Nord Stream problems, but in central Europe, where distrust of Russia runs high, there were fears that Moscow sabotaged its own infrastructure out of spite or to warn that all pipelines are vulnerable to attack.

embedded269016697 A ship works offshore in the Baltic Sea on the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2.

The leaks emerged off the coast of Denmark and Sweden, raising the stakes on whether energy infrastructure in European waters was being targeted and leading to a small bump in natural gas prices.

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

Anders Puck Nielsen, a researcher with the Centre for Maritime Operations at the Royal Danish Defence College, said the timing of the leaks was “conspicuous” given the ceremony for the Baltic Pipe.

“The arrow points in the direction of Russia,” he said. “No one in the West is interested in having any kind of instability in the energy market.”

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

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

They noted that undersea pipelines are designed so they can not be accidentally damaged and leaks are rare.

“Leaks of this size are a severe safety and environmental hazard, especially should Russia not stop pumping gas into the system,” the analysts said.

Mr Puck Nielsen said of possible sabotage that “technically speaking, this is not difficult. It just requires a boat. It requires some divers that know how to handle explosive devices”.

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

Asked if the leaks may have been caused by sabotage, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “no version could be excluded”.

“This is an unprecedented situation that requires an urgent investigation. We are extremely worried by this news,” he told reporters.

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

Denmark established a prohibited area to ensure ships do not go near the leaks. Ships may lose buoyancy, and there may also be a risk of ignition above the water and in the air, authorities said.

The Nord Stream pipelines have been at the centre of an energy clash between Europe and Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Plunging Russian supplies have caused prices to soar, pressuring governments to help ease the pain of energy bills for households and businesses as winter nears. The crisis has also raised fears of rationing and recession.

European countries have struggled to find other supplies of gas, which heats homes, generates electricity and runs factories. Poland, for example, was on track to free itself of Russian gas after working for years to secure other sources, including liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US and Middle East. Germany, in contrast, is only now racing to build LNG terminals.

The Baltic Pipe is a prominent element in the European Union’s search for energy security and is to start bringing Norwegian gas through Denmark and along the Baltic Sea to Poland on Saturday.

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