Tubes from the Nord Stream 1 come ashore in Germany. It is unlikely that the blast-hit Nord Stream pipes will come into use.Image Reuters

    Is there a better picture of the damage to the Nord Stream pipes?

    No, for this the gas flow from the pipeline will have to stop completely. This concerns a bubble of many millions of cubic meters of natural gas that is located in the pipeline over a stretch of 1,200 kilometers. Only when most of the gas has escaped is it safe to assess the damage caused by the leaks. That will certainly take another one to two weeks, the Danish navy estimated on Wednesday.

    Could the pipe be repaired?

    In theory yes, says René Peters, who is affiliated with TNO as an expert in gas technology. “But that’s a huge operation. You have to repair the holes underwater and then pump out all the salt water that is now running into the pipes in billions of liters at a time.’ The salt in particular is a problem, says Peters. ‘Salt speeds up the rusting process, which can create new vulnerabilities in a pipe through which gas normally passes under very high pressure.’

    In addition, there is probably no European company that could carry out such a repair. Nord Stream is a Swiss-based company, majority-owned (51 percent) by Gazprom. It is therefore a company that has been subject to the European sanctions regime since the beginning of this year.

    German intelligence services already announced on Wednesday that they therefore assume that the three pipelines will probably never be used again. Peters expects that too. “It now appears that one pipe from Nord Stream 2 has been unharmed; it has a capacity of 27 billion cubic meters per year and may still be used in the future.’

    How bad are these leaks for the environment?

    Methane is a very strong greenhouse gas. Depending on the definitions chosen, it is 25 to 80 times worse than CO2. Andrew Baxter of the environmental organization Environmental Defense Fund estimates that about 115,000 tons of methane are now escaping. Which would be comparable to the amount of CO2 emitted by 2 million petrol cars in a year. Compared to the amount of methane that is annually released into the atmosphere worldwide through agriculture, energy industry and garbage dumps, the gas leak is again less impressive. The other emissions are estimated at three thousand times as much.

    The German Environment Ministry stated that the damage is unlikely to pose a major threat to flora and fauna in the Baltic Sea, as the gas bubbles directly to the surface and escapes into the atmosphere.

    The Nord Stream has moved just outside Denmark’s territorial waters. What does that mean?

    That means that the ownership of a Swiss private company has become just outside an area over which Denmark has full control. You could say that this means that the action cannot in any case be qualified as a clear attack on a NATO country. But Fred Soons, emeritus professor of maritime law at Utrecht University, is not so convinced. Countries also have something to say outside their territorial waters, on the continental shelf, says Soons. ‘If activities take place there that harm nature or safety, the countries are allowed to intervene.’

    According to Soons, if there is a state behind the destruction, it is in any case an act of state terrorism. ‘Suppose you find out which country did this, then it’s up to NATO to determine how you qualify. Lawyers advise on this, but it is mainly a political consideration.’

    The Danish and Norwegian authorities have immediately said that they will increase their ‘surveillance’. What can they do?

    The navy is now keeping an extra close eye on the most important objects in the Baltic Sea. ‘As a result, you may be able to spot strange things sooner’, says Frank Bekkers of the The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS). “And there is also a deterrent effect of the fact that you are more likely to be caught red-handed if you try to sabotage a pipe.” But Bekkers – who is one of the authors of last year’s report on the vulnerability of all valuable installations in the North Sea – also acknowledges that it is ‘inconceivable’ to keep a constant eye on all important pipelines. ‘In addition, it may well be that an explosive has been placed somewhere much earlier that can now be detonated from a distance.’

    That sounds scary. Where would such an attack hurt Europe the most?

    That is without a doubt the gas pipeline from Norway to the German town of Emden, says René Peters of TNO. ‘Due to the disappearance of the Nord Stream, the German economy is now almost completely dependent on gas from two sources: from the Netherlands and from the Norwegian pipeline. Those two pipes are constantly open to the maximum and there are still serious shortages. So if the Norwegian supply were to stop, the damage to the German economy would be enormous.’ And just like with Nord Stream, it would take months for such a pipe to be repaired.

    How vulnerable is the Dutch submarine infrastructure?

    In total there are now about 10 thousand kilometers of oil and gas pipelines and power and communication cables on the Dutch part of the continental shelf, the pie slice of the North Sea bed that we are allowed to use economically. Thousands of kilometers will be added in the coming years, because by 2030 three quarters of our electricity from wind turbines must be at sea. Is it a coincidence that in recent years more and more Russian ships are sailing through our North Sea waters without giving reasons? In the HCSS report published by Bekkers last autumn, the submarine cables and pipelines are explicitly mentioned as a target of Russia’s so-called seabed warfare, warfare on the seabed. ‘That is a specific point of attention in Russia’s military strategy at sea, and with that the protection of submarine cables becomes important.’

    Why is this vulnerability only now being addressed?

    Partly because attacking such international connections actually not done is: there’s a kind of tacit agreement that you won’t touch it. But also partly because such sabotage was always very difficult from a technical point of view, says Peter Beerens, program leader Underwater Acoustics at research institute TNO. ‘To sabotage such a cable or pipeline unseen, you need a mini-submarine that can cut something in the right place or make it explode. Manned mini-submarines cannot go that deep because of the increasing pressure. Unmanned submarines have exploded in the last few years, and the threat has grown with them.’

    Have there been any incidents before the Nord Stream sabotage?

    Yes. Last year, a piece of cable was cut off the Norwegian coast at a depth of 250 meters, along which the data was sent from an underwater observatory. The cable was later found miles away.

    Why are sabotaging countries only now able to do this?

    Underwater drones, much more than flying drones, are real robots. Flying drones usually still have someone with a joystick at the helm. Underwater drones must be able to work much more autonomously, says Beerens, because it is not so easy to control something remotely under water. The only possible communication is through sound waves, and there is much less information to put in there than in electromagnetic waves that provide communication through the air. Moreover, positioning is difficult, because there is no GPS underwater. And third, visibility underwater is worse. It was therefore difficult for these robots to find their target independently. Until shortly.

    What can you do about it?

    Detection of sabotaging drones is already difficult. Because the visibility is so bad, you can’t do much with underwater cameras. However, the mini-submarines do make noise – even more to communicate than to move – so TNO is now investigating how many sensors you need to properly protect the seabed for the Ministry of Defence. At the moment, those sensors are not there yet. There are, however, naval ships that can use sonar equipment to listen to the sea in search of submarines.

    Is the threat recognized?

    After the HCSS report, CDA Member of Parliament and former soldier Derk Boswijk submitted a motion in which he proposed that the cabinet, together with the countries bordering the North Sea, ‘develop a strategy for the protection of our crucial infrastructure in the North Sea’. He is thinking of a kind of rotating responsibility, in which one country always patrols the North Sea.

    Defense Minister Kasja Ollongren announced in July that a response to Boswijk’s motion has been delayed because ‘it is a complex file in which extensive interdepartmental coordination and international coordination is desirable’. Boswijk says he finds it ‘frustrating’ that there was still so little sense of urgency. “But that will change now.”