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

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The apparent sabotage of both Nord Stream pipelines may be one of the worst industrial methane accidents in history, scientists said Wednesday, but it is not a major climate disaster.

Methane, a greenhouse gas up to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is escaping into the atmosphere from three boiling patches on the surface of the Baltic Sea, the largest of which, according to the Danish military, was one kilometer Wide.

On Tuesday night, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen condemned “sabotage” and “deliberate disruption of Europe’s active energy infrastructure”.

It is also an assault on the global environment.

Here are eight key questions about the impact of leaks.

1. How much methane was in the pipes?

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

“I can’t tell you clearly, as the pipelines are owned by Nord Stream AG and the gas comes from Gazprom,” a spokesman for the German Ministry of Economy and Climate said.

The two Nord Stream 1 pipelines were in operation, 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 those lines, the German official said. Only one of the Nord Stream 2 lines was hit. It was not in operation but was filled with 177 million cubic meters of gas last year.

2. How much is being released?

Estimates of the total gas in leaking pipelines range from 150 million cubic meters to 500 million cubic meters. The midrange of those estimates indicates a leak of around 200,000 tons of methane, according to Paul Balcombe, a professor of chemical engineering at Imperial College London.

Kristoffer Böttzauw, director of the Danish Energy Agency, saying reporters on Wednesday that the leaks would equate to about 14 million tons of CO2, about 32 percent from Denmark annual emissions.

German Federal Environment Agency Estimate the leaks will result in emissions of around 7.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, roughly 1 percent of Germany’s annual emissions. The agency also noted that there are no “sealing mechanisms” along the pipes, “so it is very likely that the entire contents of the pipes will escape.”

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

But it’s not clear whether all the gas in the lines would actually be released into the atmosphere. Methane is also consumed by ocean bacteria as it moves through the water column.

3. How does that compare to previous leaks?

The largest leak ever recorded in the US was the 2015 Aliso Canyon leak of approximately 90,000 tons of methane over months. With higher estimates of what could be released in the Baltic more than double, this week’s disaster may be “unprecedented,” said David McCabe, lead scientist for the Clean Air Task Force.

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

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

“The amount of gas that is lost from the pipeline is obviously large,” Kargel said. But “it’s not the climate disaster you might think.”

Annual global carbon emissions are around 32 billion tonnes, so this represents a small 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 are warming the planet.

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

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

A leak was reported near the Nord Stream 2 pipeline off the coast of the island of Bornholm in Denmark | Danish Defense Command

5. Is the local environment affected?

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

Shipping has been restricted from a 5 nautical mile radius around the leaks. This is because methane in the water can affect buoyancy and crack a boat’s hull.

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

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

6. What can be done?

Some They have suggested that the remaining gas should be pumped out, but a spokesman for the German Economy and Climate Ministry said on Wednesday that this was not possible.

Once the pipeline has been emptied, “it will fill with water,” the spokesperson added. “At the moment, no one can go underwater, the danger is too great due to the escape of methane.”

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

7. Should they 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 of carbon and hydrogen, when burned it creates carbon dioxide, which is between 30 and 80 times less global warming per tonne than methane. Flaring, as it is known, is a common method of reducing the impact of methane exhaust.

From a pure climate perspective, setting fire to escaping methane makes sense. “Yes, it will definitely help,” said Piers Forster, director of the Priestley International Center for Climate at the University of Leeds.

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

No government has yet indicated that this is under consideration.

8. How long will it last and what’s 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 what the cause is, and approach the pipes, so that we can investigate it properly. We can do it when the gas leak has stopped,” said the director of the Danish Energy Agency, Böttzauw. the local media.

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