The four ruptures in the Nord Stream Pipelines in the Baltic Sea on September 26-27 constitute an act of sabotage that has led to the biggest-ever single point leak of methane. Let us first examine the various aspects relating to this issue on which already there is widespread agreement.
Firstly, it is already widely agreed that this is the single largest one-point release of methane into the atmosphere and extremely harmful in the context of climate change. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas (GHG) which is about 80 times more harmful than carbon dioxide over a period of 20 years. Various estimates say that the Nord Stream sabotage is likely to lead to 100,000 to 500,000 tonnes of methane emissions. The closest comparison is with the Aliso Canyon accidental leak in California in 2015-16 which involved leak of about 97,000 tonnes of methane, but it was spaced over a much longer period of about four months and so less catastrophic. It was accidental, and so while being highly unfortunate, was less of a human folly than an act of sabotage.
The Danish Energy Agency has stated that in the worst case scenario methane equivalent to a third of Denmark’s entire GHG emissions in a year (2020) could leak from the Nord Stream pipelines.
Iannis Binietoglou, of Danish Clean Air Task Force has stated, “It dwarfs the previous known leaks.”
Marcia Mcnutt, President of US National Academy of Sciences has stated, “From what I have seen this is an unprecedented loss to the atmosphere of fossil methane in a very short time from a concentrated source.”
Manfredi Caltagirone, head of UNEP’s International Methane Emission Observatory said, “This is really bad…most likely the largest emission event ever recorded.”
Prof. Rob Jackson of environmental studies at Stanford University, USA, has stated, “This will probably be the largest leak ever, in terms of its rate.”
Secondly, there was clearly big harm caused to fish and marine life in the Baltic Sea and the life close to sea, from the huge explosions, the release of highly inflammable methane immediately and longer term exposure to benzene, a known carcinogenic, and various trace chemicals present in natural gas.
Similarly human health in nearby areas has been harmed. A methane plume could be seen in several parts of Europe for some days.
Fourthly, it is clear that this was an act of deliberate sabotage. This is commonly agreed by Russia, USA and various other countries, confirmed also by investigation of Swedish security agency. There were huge detonations, causing four big ruptures at considerable distances, making such a big impact that seismologists said the Baltic Sea rattled. This was an act of sabotage planned to cause such huge damage that would be difficult to repair, regardless of the high environmental and other costs.
Fifthly, it is agreed that overall the harm caused is very acute. The biggest harm is the environmental harm. Apart from the details provided above of the extent of this harm, it should be noted that the leak triggered by sabotage is much worse than the routine leaks which can also be absorbed by water to much greater extent. However in the case of the more violent and very high velocity leak caused by sabotage and detonations the environmental harm is much higher. While the environmental and marine life harm is more serious the economic loss also cannot be ignored. The Russian energy company Gazprom and European partners had spent billions of dollars to build the pipelines for transporting natural gas from Russia to Germany and various other European countries. Even though because of recent sanctions and related factors, pipelines were not in use at the time of leak but this use could return at any time in future and hence the economic value of the pipelines remained—for Russia of course but also for Germany and several other parts of Europe as a source of reliable and cheaper natural gas from a relatively nearer source. Certainly this economic loss also cannot be ignored. This sabotage can harm the economy of Germany and some other European countries in significant ways, apart from the even more obvious loss caused to Russia.
Sixthly, keeping in view the grave harm caused by this act of sabotage, it is clear that this act of sabotage is a very serious offence and a crime against humanity. Prof. Rob Jackson of Stanford has stated, “Whoever ordered this should be prosecuted for war crimes and go to jail.”
Seventhly, it is commonly agreed that this sudden unprecedented (in recent times) act of sabotage has to be understood in the context of the new factors unleashed in international relations including big-power rivalries during year 2022 by the Ukraine conflict. Without this background of Ukraine conflict, such a highly damaging and unprecedented act of sabotage cannot be imagined.
The seven points mentioned above are those on which widespread agreement has been reached. Now we come to the point of controversy–who is responsible for this act of sabotage?
Fatih Birol, head of Inter-Energy Agency has stated that it was “very obvious” who was behind it but he has not named this very obvious culprit. Swedish security agencies have made their investigation but not revealed who was found to be the culprit by them.
An unbiased investigation involving all affected countries has not been initiated yet. In its absence we can inquire regarding who stood to benefit from this in the context of existing circumstances.
Due to US sanctions and pressures the supply of natural gas from Russia to Europe was not taking place to any significant extent using Nord Stream route at the time of leaks but clearly the possibility remained, particularly as there was increasing demand from people of Germany and other parts of Europe to utilize this route for supply of cheaper natural gas, and this demand was getting stronger as the winter approached. The option was largely to get much more expensive gas from the USA. The USA gas and oil suppliers were going to benefit in a big way from the Nord Stream pipelines remaining non-operational, but the demand for making them operational was increasing among people of Europe.
So on the one hand the USA government could ensure high earnings for its politically powerful gas and oil lobby by keeping Nord Stream non-operational and on the other hand it could destroy the possibility of Nord Stream pipelines becoming operational again in the near future by inflicting very heavy damage on them. This would also achieve the political objective of destroying the biggest project which was bringing Germany (and some other parts of Europe) closer to Russia all the time by strengthening their mutually beneficial economic relationship. This political objective may have been as important as, if not even more important than, the economic objective. The USA had been unhappy for quite some time regarding this growing relationship, the prospects of this increasing further and the role of Nord Stream in this. Hence it is clear that the USA, in the narrow perception of some of its important and aggressive policy makers, could derive important economic as well as political advantage from any big damage caused to Nord Stream pipelines. On the contrary Russia had nothing to gain from destroying its own pipelines built at the cost of billions of dollars, with the cooperation of other European partners, with the hope of increasing its earnings from gas exports.
What is more, President Biden had openly declared that if Russia invades Ukraine then Nord Stream pipelines will not be able to supply Russian gas to Europe. What is more, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was itself provoked to a substantial extent by several provocative actions taken by the USA, or at the behest of the USA by the Ukraine authorities. This does not mean that the Russian invasion, which has led to loss of too many invaluable lives on both sides (as well as massive environmental and economic harm), was entirely unavoidable, but that it was to a large extent forced on Russia by unethical, unjustified actions of the USA and close allies during the period 2014-2022 (or the Ukrainian authorities acting under the pressures exerted by the USA).
Hence while nothing can be said with total or hundred per cent certainty, the overwhelming likelihood is that the USA authorities had a lead role in either perpetrating the Nord Stream sabotage, or in instigating or asking others to get the job done.
It will be extremely useful if an international panel of entirely unbiased experts can be set up to investigate this matter further on the basis of all available evidence and present a comprehensive as well as completely unbiased report on this important issue.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.