Explained | The Nord Stream pipeline leaks: what happened and what is at stake? 

Europe looks at a harsh winter as hopes that Nord Stream pipelines would open up in the next few months are dampened due to extensive damage to the pipelines caused by four successive leaks 

October 03, 2022 12:37 pm | Updated 05:42 pm IST

A gas leak from Nord Stream 1 is seen in the Swedish economic zone in the Baltic Sea in this picture taken from the Swedish Coast Guard aircraft on September 28, 2022.

A gas leak from Nord Stream 1 is seen in the Swedish economic zone in the Baltic Sea in this picture taken from the Swedish Coast Guard aircraft on September 28, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: As gas bubbled up in the Baltic sea for the fourth day on Thursday, September 29, another gas leak, the fourth successive one, was reported by Sweden in the already damaged Nord Stream pipelines linking Russia and Europe. Three leaks were reported at different points in the pipelines since Monday. Two of the leaks were in Swedish waters while the other two were reported from Danish waters.

The European Union said they suspected “sabotage” behind the leaks without naming anyone and the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that the ruptures to the pipelines took place in territory that was “fully under the control" of United States intelligence agencies. While the EU promised a “robust” response to any international disruption to its energy infrastructure, Russia requested the United Nations Security Council to convene a meeting to discuss the damage to the pipelines that both Europe and Russia spent billions to build. The meeting has been scheduled for Friday.

What are the Nord Stream pipelines?

The Nord Stream 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.

The $7.1 (€7.4) billion Nord Stream 1 subsea pipeline, having two lines running alongside one another, has been operational since 2011, and is the largest single supply route for Russian gas to Europe. The 1,224 km-long lines run under the Baltic Sea, starting from near S.t Petersburg in Russia and Lubmin in eastern Germany, and have a combined capacity of 55 billion cubic metres (bcm).

The Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom has a majority ownership in the pipeline, and while it was running at just 20% of its capacity since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began, the company, in early September fully cut gas flows from the pipeline on the pretext of maintenance. According to Bloomberg, while 40% of Europe’s pipeline gas came from Russia before the war, the number now stands at just 9%.

The construction of the $11 billion-worth Nord Stream 2, which also has two parallel lines along the first one, was completed in 2021 but needed German approval to start supply. Once thispipeline became functional, Nord Stream 1 and 2 could deliver a combined total of 110 billion cubic metres of gas a year to Europe for at least 50 years. Germany, however, suspended the approval days before Russia sent its troops to Ukraine, meaning the pipeline never began commercial operations.

While both pipelines are not currently running commercially, they had millions of cubic metres of gas stored in them.

What has happened since September?

On Monday, September 27, the operator of Nord Stream 2 reported a drop in pressure overnight, indicating a possible leak. Hours later, Danish authorities confirmed the loss of pressure in one of the lines of Nord Stream 2, signalling a leak at one location in Danish waters.

Another pressure drop was then reported on the same day in one of the lines of Nord Stream 1, and Swedish authorities reported another leak in Nord Stream 1 in Swedish waters on Tuesday. This was followed by Thursday’s leak in Nord Stream 2 in Swedish waters, very close to the first pipeline’s leak. Both ruptures to Nord Stream 1 were located near the Danish island of Bornholm.

Denmark’s defence authority released footage of bubbles, the largest being 1 km in diameter, forming on the surface of the sea resulting from gas spewing from the pipelines. The Danish Energy Agency said on Wednesday that while half of the gas stored in Nord Stream 1 and 2 had leaked out of the ruptures, the remaining volume was expected to escape by Sunday. The agency said a combined total of 778 million cubic metres of natural gas was stored in the pipelines, which equals 32% of Denmark’s annual CO2 equivalent emissions, per the Agency.

Danish and Swedish seismologists picked up undersea explosions near the locations of the first two leaks on Monday, before the leaks occurred. Bjorn Lund of Sweden's National Seismology Centre told BBC that there was "no doubt that these were explosions".

What will be the impact of the leaks?

Since gas flows to Europe through the two Nord Streams were already halted before the leaks, there will not be a new or immediate impact when it comes to the supply.

However, the Swiss-based operator of the pipelines, the Nord Stream AG consortium, said on Tuesday: “The destruction that happened within one day at three lines of the Nord Stream pipeline system is unprecedented. It’s impossible now to estimate the timeframe for restoring operations of the gas shipment infrastructure.”

With the timeframe for repairs being uncertain and all the stored gas set to escape as a result of the leak, the pipelines are unlikely to provide any gas to Europe through the forthcoming winter months, even if the political will to resume supply was found, Al Jazeera quoted Eurasia Group analysts as saying. They also said that depending on the intensity of the damage caused by these ruptures, permanent closure of the expensive Nord Stream lines was also a possibility.

European gas prices immediately spiked after the reports of the leaks emerged; European Benchmark prices rose 12% on Tuesday, while Dutch and British Prices continued to rise on Wednesday. According to a Bloomberg analysis, the European gas market adjusted its forward gas prices for the summer of 2023 after the leaks. Traders who were betting on the Nord Stream pipelines to reopen in a couple of months, leading to lower prices, now believe it is no longer a possibility.

As for the environmental impact of the gas leaks, methane is a large component of natural gas and is also a potent greenhouse gas which is the second-largest contributor to climate change after CO2. While analysts have not quantified the environmental impact of the leaks as yet, Reuters quoted the commercial methane-measuring satellite firm GHGSat as saying that a "conservative estimate" based on available data suggested the leaks together were releasing more than 500 metric tons of methane per hour when first breached, with the flow decreasing over time.

What have international authorities said about who is behind the leaks?

Ukraine on Tuesday called the leaks a “terrorist attack” and an “act of aggression towards the EU” planned by Russia. Incidentally, Russia on Thursday said that the leaks were an act of “terorrism” possibly by a state-actor.

While the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation called the leaks acts of sabotage, they did not name a country. EU’s Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell said: “Any deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure is utterly unacceptable and will be met with a robust and united response.”

Meanwhile, Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), said on Thursday that while it was still not certain who was behind the said sabotage, the suspect was "very obvious”.

On Wednesday, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, however, that the claims of Moscow’s possible involvement in the leaks were “predictable and also predictably stupid".

"This is a big problem for us because, firstly, both lines of Nord Stream 2 are filled with gas - the entire system is ready to pump gas and the gas is very expensive... Now the gas is flying off into the air,” he told reporters at the daily press conference. "Are we interested in that? No, we are not, we have lost a route for gas supplies to Europe,"

Moscow said on Thursday that the gas leaks fell under territoriesthat were completely in control of U.S. intelligence agencies, adding that it had seen the profits of the U.S. Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) providers increase rapidly since they started pumping more of it into shortage-hit Europe.

Notably, before the Russian invasion, U.S. President Biden promised that “there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2” if Russia invaded Ukraine and in September, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin said in response to Europe’s plan to put price caps on Russian oil and gas exports, that he would not hesitate to rip all energy supply contracts and let Europe “freeze” this winter.

While the U.S. hasn’t blamed any specific actor for the leaks, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday that the country would support an investigation into the “apparent sabotage” and stay committed to protecting Europe's energy security.

As a result of the leaks, navigational warnings have been issued for a distance of five nautical miles and a flight height of 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) and Danish authorities have launched an investigation into the leaks.

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