Analysis: Nord Stream gas leak raises climate concerns, but its impact is hard to determine

(Reuters) – Unexplained leaks in two Russian gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea are releasing greenhouse gas emissions, raising fears that the disruption could cause climate catastrophe — though it remains unclear to what extent.

Neither pipeline was in operation, but both contained natural gas — which consists largely of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is the second biggest cause of climate change after carbon dioxide.

“There are a number of uncertainties, but if these pipelines fail, the impact on the climate will be catastrophic and potentially unprecedented,” said atmospheric chemist David McCabe, a senior scientist with the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force.

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McCabe and other emissions experts told Reuters it was not yet possible to assess the extent of the leak, given uncertainty about factors such as the temperature of the gas in the pipeline, how quickly it would leak, and how much gas would be absorbed by microbes. in the water before reaching the surface.

But since Nord Stream’s two pipelines contain mostly methane, “the potential for massive and highly destructive emissions is very concerning,” McCabe said.

Over a 20-year time frame, methane has more than 80 times the planet’s warming efficacy than carbon dioxide, and about 30 times its 100-year strength. Scientists say that sharp reductions in methane emissions over the next few years will be a vital lever in curbing climate change.

Difficult to quantify

It would be difficult to determine exactly how much gas is reaching the atmosphere – especially given the scarce current data on leaks from undersea pipelines, said Jasmine Cooper, research assistant at the Institute for Sustainable Gas at Imperial College London.

“Gazprom probably has an estimate based on gas productivity, but in terms of the amount of gas/methane released into the atmosphere… they have to send a team now for measurement and monitoring,” she said, referring to the state. A Russian owned gas company.

Jean-Francois Gauthier, vice president of measurements at the center, said that a “conservative estimate” based on available data indicated that the leaks together were releasing more than 500 metric tons of methane per hour when first breached, with reduced pressure and flow rate over time. Commercial satellite methane measurement company GHGSat.

By comparison, the massive Aliso Canyon gas leak in the US in 2016 released about 50 tons of methane per hour at its peak. “So this is going to be an order of magnitude bigger,” Gauthier said.

This week the system contained 300 million cubic meters of gas, a spokesman for Nord Stream 2 – one of the leaky pipelines, which never started and was suspended by Germany before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Releasing that amount entirely into the atmosphere would result in about 200,000 tons of methane emissions, said chemical engineer Paul Balcombe of Queen Mary University of London.

The German non-profit Deutsche Umwelthilfe provided a similar estimate of the pipeline’s potential emissions.

That amount of methane would have the same 100-year global warming potential as about 6 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to Reuters calculations based on IPCC conversion factors. This is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in an entire year by medium-sized cities such as Havana, Helsinki or Dayton, Ohio.

The amount of gas leaking from the Nord Stream 1 pipeline is less clear, with a pipeline spokesperson refusing to say how much was left in the system when it was shut down for maintenance a few weeks ago.

Stefano Grassi, head of the European Union Energy Council of Ministers, said on Tuesday that the leaks could turn into a “climate and environmental disaster”.

We are in contact with [EU member states] To look into what happened and find the quickest way to stop the leak and avoid the biggest damage,” Grassi said in a tweet.

European Union countries were among more than 100 countries, including the United States, Brazil, Pakistan and Mexico, that pledged last year to reduce their combined methane emissions by 30% by 2030, in a bid to help stave off catastrophic levels of climate change.

environmental risks

While oil spills can affect and ultimately kill wildlife, authorities say a gas pipeline leak poses a limited threat to surrounding plant and animal life.

The German environment ministry said the leaks would not pose a significant threat to marine life, but Greenpeace raised concerns on Tuesday that fish might get stuck in gas columns, potentially interfering with their breathing.

It is too early to say who will investigate the Nord Stream 2 leak and no one has seen the pipeline yet, the Danish Energy Agency told Reuters.

She added that the leaks will likely continue for several days, perhaps a week.

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(Additional reporting by Kate Abnett, Shadia Nasrallah, Rachel Moore, Thomas Escritt); Editing by Katie Daigle and Aurora Ellis

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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