European Union member states are racing to investigate sudden and unexplained leaks in two Russian gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea, infrastructure at the heart of an energy stand-off between Moscow and the bloc.
Sweden’s Maritime Authority issued a warning on Tuesday about two leaks in the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, the day after a leak on the nearby Nord Stream 2 pipeline was discovered, prompting Denmark to restrict shipping and impose a small no-fly zone. Both were in an area northeast of the Danish island Bornholm.
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The Nord Stream pipelines have been flashpoints in an escalating energy war between European capitals and Moscow that has pummelled major Western economies, sent gas prices soaring and sparked a hunt for alternative energy supplies.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the leaks were caused by sabotage, while his Danish counterpart Mette Frederiksen said it was “hard to imagine” they were a “coincidence”.
“Today we faced an act of sabotage, we don’t know all the details of what happened, but we see clearly that it’s an act of sabotage, related to the next step of escalation of the situation in Ukraine,” Morawiecki said.
The incidents occurred just before the ceremonial launch on Tuesday of the Baltic Pipe carrying gas from Norway to Poland, a centrepiece of Warsaw’s efforts to diversify from Russian supplies.
Moscow, which slashed its gas deliveries to Europe in retaliation for sanctions imposed over its invasion of Ukraine, described the leaks as “very alarming” and called for an “urgent investigation”.
Kathryn Porter, an energy consultant at Watt-Logic, a United Kingdom-based independent energy consultancy, said it was extremely “rare” for such a series of leaks to occur within the same general area.
“This is pretty unprecedented,” Porter told Al Jazeera.
“Everyone is scratching their heads to try and understand what has happened here and what the motivation behind it could be.
“For pipes to fail, normally you either have something like corrosion or fatigue, but Nord Stream 2 is a brand new pipe. And you could look at maybe some sort of construction problem, such as faulty welding, but on the other hand, there are now issues with Nord Stream 1 and that’s been operating since 2012.
“So it is very difficult to come up with a rational explanation for these things.”
Neither pipeline was pumping gas to Europe at the time the leaks were found amid the dispute over the war in Ukraine, but the incidents will scupper any remaining expectations that Europe could receive gas via Nord Stream 1 before winter.
“The destruction that occurred on the same day simultaneously on three strings of the offshore gas pipelines of the Nord Stream system is unprecedented,” said network operator Nord Stream AG.
Russia slashed gas supplies to Europe via Nord Stream 1 before suspending flows altogether in August, blaming Western sanctions for causing technical difficulties. European politicians say that was a pretext to stop supplying gas.
The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline had yet to enter commercial operations. The plan to use it to supply gas was scrapped by Germany days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February.
Although neither was in operation, both pipelines still contained gas under pressure.
The Danish energy agency said there were no risks associated with the leak outside the exclusion zone, and would only affect the environment in the area in which the gas plume in the water column is located.
However, it added that escaping greenhouse gas methane would have a damaging impact on the climate.
European gas prices rose on the news of the leaks, with the benchmark October Dutch price up almost 10 percent on Tuesday. Prices were still below this year’s stratospheric peaks, but remain more than 200 percent higher than in early September 2021.