Nord Pipeline Explosion May Have Caused Single Biggest Methane Leak in History

Experts say a massive amount of methane was released into the atmosphere due to possible explosions in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines.

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A leak from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Wednesday, September 28.
A leak from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Wednesday, September 28.
Photo: Swedish Coast Guard (AP)

The war between Europe and Russia may be responsible for a new horror: a shockingly large release of damaging greenhouse gas.

Earlier this week, three leaks in two natural gas pipelines, the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Poland were discovered by officials, with monitoring stations logging big spikes in methane from the leaks. On Thursday, Swedish officials said that they have found a fourth leak in the pipelines, which run between Russia and Germany. Seismologists say that explosions and drops of pressure were logged in the area, leading several European officials to suggest the breaches may be an act of sabotage against European energy stability, possibly from Russia. Russia on Thursday denied responsibility.

According to official estimates of the leak provided by the Danish government, in a worst-case scenario, the pipeline could have discharged 778 million cubic meters of gas. Two separate climate scientists told the AP that the damage could work out to about half a million metric tons of methane. That’s some five times larger than the amount of methane leaked in the Aliso Canyon accident in California in 2016—which, to date, is the largest single release of methane in history. Even a more conservative estimate provided to the AP by the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund still puts the amount of methane potentially released by this explosion to be twice as much as the Aliso leak.

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Some experts told the Washington Post that an individual release of methane like this, while worrisomely large, won’t be enough on its own to do significant damage to the atmosphere.

“It’s not trivial, but it’s a modest-sized U.S. city, something like that,” Drew Shindell, a professor of earth science at Duke University, told the Washington Post. “There are so many sources all around the world. Any single event tends to be small. I think this tends to fall in that category.”

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Still, other experts warned that in a worst-case scenario, the leak could represent 0.1 percent of worldwide methane emissions each year. “Even a little leak has quite a climate impact,” Paul Balcombe, an energy expert London’s Queen Mary University, told the Post.

And even if the amount of methane released isn’t enough to make a worldwide dent in greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a jaw-dropping amount—and indicative of just how damaging oil and gas industry infrastructure can be when it malfunctions or is damaged. Kristoffer Böttzauw, head of the Danish Energy Agency, told the AP that the emissions from the leaks are equivalent to about a third of the annual total Danish CO2 emissions, thanks to methane’s intensity.

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Methane only lasts for around a decade in the atmosphere, which means that over the long term it is less damaging than carbon dioxide. However, methane is about 80 times more potent than CO2, which means that it really packs a punch when it’s in the atmosphere. Global methane emissions, primarily driven by the agriculture and the oil and gas industry, have risen so sharply in recent years, and our time to act on climate is so limited, that for the first time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advised in its landmark report last year that drawing down methane emissions in the short term will be crucial to reaching global climate goals.

“Whoever ordered this should be prosecuted for war crimes and go to jail,” Rob Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist, told the AP.