European countries raced Tuesday to investigate an unexplained leak from two Russian gas pipelines running under the Baltic Sea near Sweden and Denmark, infrastructure at the heart of the energy crisis since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Sabotage appeared to be the likely cause, several European officials said, and Russia, which built the network, did not rule it out.
Terje Aasland, Norway’s oil and energy minister, said on Tuesday that preliminary information received about the spill indicated an “act of sabotage”. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Anderson and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen both said the incident may have been “deliberate” but played down the possibility of a military threat.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “any option cannot be ruled out right now.”
The two pipelines have been a flashpoint in an escalating energy war between the European capital and Moscow that has battered major Western economies, sent gas prices soaring and sparked a rush for alternative energy supplies.
According to pipeline operator Nord Stream AG, it is currently impossible to estimate a “timetable for the restoration of gas transport infrastructure”.
In a statement Tuesday night, it added that a drop in pressure in the pipeline indicated physical damage.
German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said German, Danish and Scandinavian security authorities were closely monitoring the Baltic spill and investigating its cause, adding that German energy supplies were not affected.
Nord Stream 1 makes Europe more dependent on Russian gas.That’s why
Earlier in the day, the Swedish Maritime Administration issued a warning about two leaks from the Nord Stream 1 pipeline shortly after the leak was discovered in the nearby Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Neither pipeline was delivering gas to Europe at the time the leak was discovered, but these events would undermine any remaining expectations that Europe could get gas through Nord Stream 1 before winter.
“The simultaneous occurrence of damage on the three offshore gas pipelines of the Nord Stream system on the same day is unprecedented,” said network operator Nord Stream AG. “It is currently impossible to estimate the timeframe for the restoration of gas transport infrastructure.”
Although neither was running, both pipes still contained gas under pressure.
The leaking gas was found in Nord Stream 2 between Russia and Denmark on Monday, Danish Energy Minister Dan Jorgensen said in a written comment.
The Kremlin-controlled Gazprom, which has a monopoly on Russia’s pipeline gas exports, declined to comment.
Russia cut gas supplies to Europe through Nord Stream 1 before suspending supplies entirely in August, blaming Western sanctions for technical difficulties. European politicians say this is an excuse to stop gas supplies.
The new Nord Stream 2 pipeline has not yet entered commercial operation. Days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine in February, Germany scrapped plans to use it to supply gas.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Tuesday that any deliberate destruction of Europe’s energy infrastructure is “unacceptable and will “lead to the strongest possible reaction”.
Experts also agree that the damage may have been intentional.
Jakub Godzimirski, a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs who specializes in Russian energy policy, said the leak could have been a technical glitch, but it could also have been sabotage.
“There are some signs of sabotage,” a European security source said, adding that it was too early to draw conclusions. “You have to ask: Who will benefit?”
The leak comes ahead of Tuesday’s ceremony for a Baltic pipeline to transport gas from Norway to Poland, which is at the heart of Warsaw’s efforts to diversify supplies from Russia.
Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority (PSA) on Monday urged oil companies to be on alert for unidentified drones flying near oil and gas platforms offshore Norway, warning of possible attacks.
A spokesman for the Swedish Maritime Administration (SMA) said there were two leaks from Nord Stream 1, one in the Swedish economic zone and the other in the Danish zone, adding that both leaks were on the Danish island of Bornholm Northeast region.
A second SMA spokesman said: “We are closely monitoring to ensure that no vessel has come too close to the scene.”
If ships entered the area, they could lose buoyancy and there could be a risk of leaking gas igniting on the water and in the air, the Danish energy agency said, adding that there were no safety risks associated with a leak outside the exclusion zone.
Seismologists detected explosions in an area close to the Nord Stream pipeline on Monday, but it was unclear whether the events were pipeline-related.
It said the leak would only affect the local environment, meaning only the area where the gas plume in the water column is located would be affected, adding that the escaping greenhouse gas methane would have a devastating effect on the climate.
Danish authorities have called for an increased level of preparedness for the electricity and gas sector in Denmark following the spill, which requires enhanced safety procedures for electrical installations and facilities.
Kristoffer Bottzauw, head of the Danish Energy Agency, said: “Damage to natural gas pipelines is extremely rare… We want to ensure that critical infrastructure in Denmark is thoroughly monitored to enhance security of supply in the future.”