The 700-meter wide pool of bubbling water in the Baltic Sea caused by the rupture of the Nord Stream gas pipelines points to a climate disaster.
It’s the most visible of three major gas leaks emanating from the pipelines connecting Russia to Germany. Scientists are scrambling to work out just how much methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, has escaped into the atmosphere. The fear is that it could be one of the worst releases ever.
The cause of the three near-simultaneous pipeline ruptures hasn’t been confirmed, but German and US officials said the incident looked like sabotage.
While the Nord Stream 1 pipelines were halted — and Nordstream 2 had never even started — they all contained pressurized natural gas, the vast majority of which is methane.
“Given that, over twenty years, a ton of methane has a climate impact more than 80 times that of CO2, the potential for a massive and highly damaging emission event is very worrisome,” said David McCabe, senior scientist at Clean Air Task Force, a climate nonprofit. “There are a number of uncertainties but, if these pipelines fail, the impact to the climate will be disastrous and could even be unprecedented.”
Estimating the precise amount of methane that has escaped into the atmosphere is an extremely challenging task. Many so-called super-emitting events — large continuous discharges of methane — are captured by satellite imagery over land-based pipelines or fossil-fuel production sites. But capturing accurate data over water is far more challenging given the light that reflects of the surface.
There are a number of other key uncertainties — how much gas was in the pipelines at the time, what temperature and pressure it was being held at, and just how big the size of the rupture in the pipes was. Even when the gas escapes, some is likely to have dissipated into the water, but that also depends on the density of microbial life, as well as the depth. To obtain accurate readings, a plane would probably have to take measurements from the air.
Despite that, scientists on social media were quick to do some back-of-the envelope calculations into just how much methane might have escaped. Andrew Baxter, director of energy strategy at the Environmental Defense Fund, estimated that around 115,000 tons of methane escaped, equivalent to around 9.6 million tons of Carbon Dioxide. In real terms, that’s the same climate impact as the emissions from 2 million gasoline cars over the course of a year, or two-and-a-half coal-fired power stations.
If that’s close to being accurate, it would be one of the biggest methane leaks ever. The biggest known release in the US happened at gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, Los Angeles, in 2015, where an estimated 97,100 metric tons of methane was emitted over several months. By comparison, the Nord Stream leaks may have happened over the course of several hours.
The expulsion of methane comes amid growing public consciousness of its effects on the climate. At the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, over 100 countries pledged to drastically curb emissions. The European Union is also in the process of legislation that would raise the obligation on companies to reduce flaring of the gas, conduct regular inspections to stem leaks and boost transparency of leaks associated with imports.
At an event in the European Parliament Tuesday evening to launch “methane week,” lawmakers, scientists and environmentalists discussed how to measure the scale of the leak, but were united on one thing — it is likely to be an environmental disaster. The Green group’s co-lead negotiator for the bloc’s methane regulation, Jutta Paulus, pointed the finger firmly toward Russia, coming the same week as the Baltic Pipeline — connecting Norway to Poland — was opened.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is happened on the day the Baltic pipeline was opened,” Paulus said at the event. President Vladimir Putin is telling us “be sure you know what you’re doing when you’re applying more sanctions on us. We have to use all possibilities to apply energy efficiency and ramp up renewables.”