The Nord Stream gas fracturing could release “unprecedented” amounts of this powerful greenhouse gas


Experts say unexplained explosions in the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Europe could release “unprecedented” amounts of the greenhouse gas methane and could be extremely damaging to the climate.

More than 100,000 metric tons of natural gas are bubbling within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of the surface of the Baltic Sea, leaking into both the water and the atmosphere. About 90% of this is methane, a greenhouse gas with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide (CO2).

It is comparable to the famous Aliso Canyon spill in the United States in 2016, which released 97,000 tons of methane into the open air. The difference is that the escape was gradual, over a much longer period of time.

Nord Stream’s concern is that the event could be so large and fast that it adds a large portion to the world’s methane emissions, which is leaking in huge volumes from gas, oil and coal infrastructure, and has a rapid warming effect. the planet

The leak was discovered earlier this week and seismologists said they detected explosions at the site, which likely caused the pipes to rupture. On Thursday, the Swedish coast guard confirmed a fourth leak in the pipeline. One of its vessels is uncovering a steady flow of gas near the source of the two leaks in Swedish waters.

There are still many unknowns about what happened to the pipelines, which have been used as a bargaining chip during the energy crisis and Russia’s war in Ukraine. Who is responsible, as well as geopolitical, economic and security questions remain unanswered.

“We are very concerned,” said Zitely Tzompa Sosa, an atmospheric scientist at the climate nonprofit Clean Air Task Force (CATF).

Based on data from Nord Stream AG, the pipeline operator, Tzompa Sosa says there were probably between 100 and 120 kilotons in Nord Stream 1 at the time of the rupture.

“That would be equivalent to a third of the total methane emissions from the German energy sector in 2020, which is about 5% of Europe’s methane emissions from the energy sector,” Sosa told CNN, assuming the greenhouse gas entered the atmosphere.

Quantifying leakage at this point is a rough estimate. Nord Stream 1 stopped supplying gas to Europe in July and Nord Stream 2 never fully opened, making certainty about the volume impossible.

Other climate scientists are less conservative in their estimates. Although Nord Stream 2 has never been fully opened, the pipeline has a capacity of 200 kilotons.

Paul Balcombe, a professor of chemical engineering at Imperial College London, told CNN that the 200 kilotons of gas entering the atmosphere would be around 10% of the UK’s total methane emissions.

Methane and CO2 are both greenhouse gases, but they behave differently. Balcombe told CNN that methane poses a greater risk of “short-term warming” than CO2. Although methane is only “in the atmosphere for about 10 years”, its immediate effect is “much stronger”.

But even in the long run, it’s worse.

“Over a 100-year average, it’s 30 times worse than CO2,” Balcombe told CNN, referring to methane’s warming potential. As governments scramble to reduce emissions, “these large emissions now will worsen near-term warming.”

Pipes in the Nord Stream 1 ground installation in Lubmin in March.

Gas leaks are much more harmful to the climate than burning gas for use. The raw molecular form of methane that leaves the pipes and enters the atmosphere is worse than if the gas had been used in homes, for example, for heating.

When methane is burned, for example in home kitchens, “the compounds released from the combustion are not as dangerous for the climate as the methane itself,” said Tzompa Sosa.

Rowan Emslie, a spokesman for the CATF, said many gas-producing factories had “safety systems” designed to burn off gas in a leak, which is preferable to releasing raw methane into the atmosphere.

“It’s still CO2 emissions, it’s still bad, but not as bad,” Emslie told CNN.

What is really worrying is the rate at which the gas has entered the atmosphere.

“The unprecedented aspect is that we don’t think we’ve seen this many leaks before,” Emslie said, “which is why it’s so concerning.”

The fact that the Nord Stream spill occurred underwater further complicates the understanding. Factors such as the size of the gas bubbles, the concentration of methane-eating microbes in the water, and the depth from which the gas rises can affect the overall environmental impact. Monitoring emissions will also be difficult, as most satellites only pick up methane concentrations from land, rather than the sea.

Understanding the full picture “will take a little more time: months, maybe years,” Sosa said.

The event itself can be over quite quickly. Grant Allen, an environmental scientist at the University of Manchester, told CNN that this is a “time-limited event”.

If the gas flow is interrupted, Russia said, the rate of release will slow as the pressure in the pipelines drops. In this case, the sea does not “boil” any longer.