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NATO decries pipeline ‘sabotage’ amid efforts to measure environmental impact

Sept. 29, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 29, 2022 at 8:52 p.m.

The Nord Stream 2 gas line landfall facility in Lubmin, Germany, on Sept. 7, 2020.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
The Nord Stream 2 gas line landfall facility in Lubmin, Germany, on Sept. 7, 2020. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Meg Kelly and Ellen Francis Washington Post

BERLIN – NATO issued its strongest statement yet on Thursday over the breaches in the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, describing the damage as the result of “deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage.”

The blasts have raised tensions in northern Europe and fears that the war in Ukraine could spill into the realm of vital energy infrastructure – as well as concerns over the environmental impact of the leaks.

Images released Thursday by the Swedish Coast Guard show a large mass of methane bubbles on the sea surface emanating from the leak in the two pipelines that make up Nord Stream 1 and a smaller mass above the single Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The statement notes there are four leaks across the three pipelines – not three has had been widely reported.

The NATO statement said any attack against a member of the 30-country bloc’s infrastructure would “be met with a united and determined response,” echoing the European Union’s warning the day before about a “robust and united response” to any attacks on energy infrastructure.

An E.U. official reiterated Thursday that the damage to the pipelines was “not a coincidence.” Asked what Europe would do in response to the sabotage, the official said there was “a lot of coordination and discussion among the member states,” but declined to get into specifics. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to brief the press.

Danish and Swedish authorities have ruled out natural causes for the explosions detected on Monday that caused the leaks. The Swedish National Seismic Network registered two distinct blasts in the vicinity of the Danish island of Bornholm and said they were similar in nature to explosions from Swedish military exercises they periodically monitor.

“This looks like other blasts,” Bjorn Lund, director of the network, told the Post. Cautioning that it was a preliminary estimate, he said the strength of the larger second blast was equivalent to 220-440 pounds of TNT. The first was smaller and harder to measure.

With the consensus among European leaders that sabotage was involved, suspicion is increasingly falling on Russia, which has used energy supplies as leverage against Europe since the invasion of Ukraine. Russian Navy ships were spotted in the vicinity of the leaks on Monday and Tuesday, Western intelligence officials told CNN.

It is not clear if those ships were in any way involved with the pipeline explosions. The Kremlin responded to the allegation, noting that there was larger NATO presence in the area.

It is not uncommon for naval vessels from both NATO countries and Russia to be present in the strategically important Baltic Sea region.

The Kremlin has denied responsibility for the incident, suggesting Thursday that the incidents should be investigated as “an act of terrorism” and a coordinated international investigation is required, as Russia is the majority-owner of both pipelines.

While experts say the resulting gas leak could amount to the single largest-ever single release of methane gas into the atmosphere, it may not have been enough to have a major effect on climate change.

Swedish monitoring stations that measure atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reported unusual spikes since the pipeline burst including with methane concentration 20-25 percent higher than usual, “which is quite remarkable compared with our long-term data series,” Thomas Holst, a researcher at Lund University in Sweden, told the Post over email.

He added, however, that it was not enough to pose a health risk.

New data released Wednesday by the Danish Energy Authority allowed scientists to produce preliminary estimates of the amount of methane released as a result of the pipelines.

A worst-case calculation by Thomas Lauvaux, a researcher with the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in France, equated it to what comes from about 1 million cars in a year, so a comparatively minor increase on the amount currently generated by the 250 million cars operating in E.U. in 2020.

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