8 things to know about the environmental impact of the ‘unprecedented’ Nord Stream leaks

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The apparent sabotage of the two Nord Stream gas pipelines could be one of the worst methane-related industrial accidents in history, scientists said on Wednesday, but it is not a major climate disaster.

Methane – a greenhouse gas up to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide – escapes into the atmosphere from three boiling zones on the surface of the Baltic Sea, the largest of which, according to the Danish army, was one kilometer in diameter.

On Tuesday evening, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sentenced “sabotage” and “deliberate disruption of active European energy infrastructure”.

It is also an attack on the global environment.

Here are eight key questions about the impact of leaks.

1. How much methane was in the pipelines?

No government agency in Europe could say for sure how much gas was in the pipes.

“I can’t tell you clearly because the pipelines belong to Nord Stream AG and the gas comes from Gazprom,” a spokesman for Germany’s climate and economics ministry said.

Both Nord Stream 1 pipelines were in service, although Moscow stopped delivering gas a month ago, and both were affected. “It can be assumed that there is a large amount” of gas in these pipes, the German official said. Only one of the Nord Stream 2 lines was affected. It was not in service but was filled with 177 million cubic meters of gas last year.

2. How much is released?

Estimates of the total volume of gas in leaking pipelines range from 150 million cubic meters to 500 million cubic meters. The middle range of these estimates indicates a leak of around 200,000 tonnes of methane, according to Paul Balcombe, senior lecturer in chemical engineering at Imperial College London.

Kristoffer Böttzauw, the director of the Danish Energy Agency, Told journalists on Wednesday that the leaks would be equivalent to around 14 million tonnes of CO2, or about 32% of Denmark annual emissions.

German Federal Environment Agency valued the leaks will result in emissions of around 7.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, or around 1% of Germany’s annual emissions. The agency also noted that there are no “sealing mechanisms” along the pipelines, “so in all likelihood the entire contents of the pipes will leak out.”

Because at least one of the leaks is in Danish waters, Denmark will have to add those emissions to its climate balance sheet, the agency said.

But it’s unclear if all the gas in the lines would actually be released into the atmosphere. Methane is also consumed by ocean bacteria as it passes through the water column.

3. How does this compare to previous leaks?

The largest release on record in the United States was the release of approximately 90,000 tons of methane over the months at Aliso Canyon in 2015. With upper estimates of what could be released in the Baltic more than double, the This week’s disaster could be “unprecedented,” said Clean Air Task Force senior scientist David McCabe.

Jeffrey Kargel, a senior scientist at the Planetary Research Institute in Tucson, Arizona, said the leak was “really disturbing. It’s a real travesty, an environmental crime if it was deliberate.”

4. Will this have a significant effect on global temperatures?

“The amount of gas lost through the pipeline is obviously significant,” Kargel said. But “it’s not the climate catastrophe that one might think”.

Annual global carbon emissions are around 32 billion tonnes, which is a tiny fraction of the pollution that causes climate change. It even pales in comparison to the accumulation of thousands of industrial and agricultural sources of methane that warm the planet.

“This is a small bubble in the ocean compared to the huge amounts of so-called fugitive methane that are being emitted around the world every day due to things like fracking, coal mining and mining. oil,” said Dave Reay, executive director of the Edinburgh. Climate Change Institute.

Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior analyst at the Center for Energy and Clean Air Research, said it was roughly comparable to the amount of methane leaking from Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure over the past of a given working week.

A leak has been reported near the Nord Stream 2 pipeline off the Danish island of Bornholm | Danish Defense Command

5. Is the local environment affected?

While the gas is still leaking, the immediate vicinity is an extremely dangerous place. Air containing more than 5% methane can be flammable, Rehder said, so the risk of an explosion is real. Methane is not a toxic gas, but high concentrations can reduce the amount of oxygen available.

Navigation has been restricted within a 5 nautical mile radius of the leaks. This is because methane in the water can affect buoyancy and rupture a ship’s hull.

Marine animals near the escaping gas can be caught and killed, especially poor swimmers such as jellyfish, Rehder said. But the long-term effects on the local environment are not anticipated.

“This is an unprecedented case,” he said. “But based on our current knowledge, I think the local effects on marine life in the area are quite low.”

6. What can be done?

Some have suggested that the remaining gas would have to be pumped out, but a spokesman for Germany’s economics and climate ministry said on Wednesday that was not possible.

Once the pipeline is emptied, “it will fill with water,” the spokesperson added. “At the moment no one can go underwater – the danger is too great because of the escaping methane.”

Any repairs would be the responsibility of the pipeline owner Nord Stream AG, the Germans said.

7. Should we set it on fire?

Not only would it look impressive, but setting the gas on fire would greatly reduce the global warming impact of the leak. Methane is made up of carbon and hydrogen, when burned it creates carbon dioxide, which is between 30 and 80 times less warming the planet per ton than methane. Flaring, as it is called, is a common method to reduce the impact of methane exhaust.

From a purely climatic point of view, it makes sense to ignite the escaping methane. “Yes, definitely – it will help,” said Piers Forster, director of the Priestley International Center for Climate at the University of Leeds.

But there would be safety concerns and potential environmental issues, including air pollution from combustion. “With land – especially the inhabited and tourist island of Bornholm – nearby, you wouldn’t venture there,” Rehder said.

No government has yet indicated that this is under consideration.

8. How long will this last and what happens next?

“We expect the gas to come out of the pipes until the end of the week. After that, first of all, from the Danish side, we will try to go out and investigate the cause, and approach the pipes, so that we can investigate properly. We can do this when the gas leak has stopped,” said Danish Energy Agency director Böttzauw. local media.

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