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An image from the Danish defense command shows the Nord Stream 2 pipeline leak

An image from Danish Defense shows the gas leaking from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on September 27, 2022. (Photo: Danish Defence/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Apparent Sabotage of Nord Stream Pipelines Risks 'Unprecedented' Climate Nightmare

While it's unclear who was responsible for the damage, Greenpeace E.U. said "what's certain is that this is terrible news for the climate, and that Europe's addiction to gas must end."

Jake Johnson

As questions and accusations continue to swirl in the wake of the suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline system, environmentalists and scientists are beginning to come to grips with the devastating climate impact of the incident, which sent gas bubbling to the surface of the Baltic Sea and unleashed a yet-unknown quantity of methane emissions into the atmosphere.

One early estimate from Jean-Francois Gauthier, vice president of measurements at the satellite firm GHGSat, indicates that the Russian gas pipelines were unleashing more than 500 metric tons of methane per hour when they were first damaged.

"This leak highlights how dangerous it is to rely on fossil gas."

As of Wednesday morning, gas was still pouring out of Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 around 48 hours after the three leaks were first detected by Danish authorities.

While neither Nord Stream 1 nor Nord Stream 2 were operating at the time of the damage, both contained a significant amount of gas whose largest component is methane, a powerful pollutant with more than 80 times the heating potency of carbon dioxide.

Nord Stream 2—which Germany, backed by the United States, barred from starting commercial operations in response to Russia's assault on Ukraine—was believed to contain 177 million cubic meters of gas at the time of the apparent attack, which prompted a torrent of speculation and finger-pointing among world powers as European authorities pledged to investigate.

Andrew Baxter, energy transition director at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that based on estimates of the pipeline's gas contents, the damage to Nord Stream 2 could spew 115,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere, roughly "the same climate impact as the annual emissions of 2 million gasoline cars."

Greenpeace E.U. warned that the combined gas from both of the leaking Nord Stream pipelines "could have the same climate-wrecking potential of 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide."

"This leak highlights how dangerous it is to rely on fossil gas," the group argued. "We don't know exactly how much gas was in the pipelines, how much leaked, and how much is absorbed by the water instead of the air. But what's certain is that this is terrible news for the climate, and that Europe's addiction to gas must end."

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that "scientists are scrambling to work out just how much methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, has escaped into the atmosphere," and the "fear is that it could be one of the worst releases ever."

David McCabe, a senior scientist with Clean Air Task Force, told the outlet that "the potential for a massive and highly damaging emission event is very worrisome."

"If these pipelines fail, the impact to the climate will be disastrous and could even be unprecedented."

"There are a number of uncertainties," McCabe added, "but, if these pipelines fail, the impact to the climate will be disastrous and could even be unprecedented."

Bloomberg points out that "the largest known release in the U.S. happened at a gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, Los Angeles in 2015, where an estimated 97,100 metric tons of methane was emitted over several months."

Denmark's defense command, which captured aerial footage of the leak in the Baltic Sea, said the largest of the three leaks resulted in a surface disturbance of over half a mile in diameter over a period of several hours, heightening concerns of a climate catastrophe as authorities rushed to mitigate the damage and determine who was responsible.

"The NSI and NSII leaks risk becoming a climate and ecological disaster," tweeted Stefano Grassi, the head of the European Union energy commissioner's cabinet. "We are in contact with [member states] to look into what happened and find the fastest way to stop leaks and avoid worse damage."

Josep Borrell, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said in a statement on behalf of the bloc Wednesday that "safety and environmental concerns are of utmost priority."

"These incidents are not a coincidence and affect us all," Borrell continued. "All available information indicates those leaks are the result of a deliberate act. We will support any investigation aimed at getting full clarity on what happened and why, and will take further steps to increase our resilience in energy security."

"Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable," he added, "and will be met with a robust and united response."

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