The methane gas emissions after gas pipeline explosions Nord Stream 1 and 2 have been so large that United Nations satellites have been able to detect them from space. In total, it has been released around half a million tons of that greenhouse gas, according to an estimate by the environmental NGO Environmental Defense Fund (EDFE) for this newspaper. The calculations are based on the figures for the volume of gas contained in the gas pipelines made public by the Danish Government.
The United Nations has described the accident as the largest methane gas emission event in history. The amount expelled, however, is only a fraction of the total 340 million tons of this gas produced by human activity (agriculture and energy, above all) each year.
“This half a million tons will have the same climate impact over the next two decades as the annual pollution of eight or nine million cars [de los aproximadamente 1.400 millones de vehículos en activo]“, says Daniel Zavala-Araiza, an environmental researcher at EDFE and the University of Utrecht (The Netherlands). “It is also, for example, five times that caused by the entire German energy industry.”
methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas and one of the enemies in the fight against climate change. It is estimated that one ton can warm the planet 23 times more than the equivalent of carbon dioxide, because the latter decomposes earlier.
“The emission is going to have an important, measurable effect, and it must be taken seriously. But it is not a catastrophe, but rather a limited event that is going to be solved”, according to Xavier Giménez, professor of Environmental Chemistry at the University of Barcelona and scientific communicator.
Methane seen from space
The images of Sentinel 2 satellite prove that the methane leak is large enough to be detected from space, according to a study published by the Polytechnic University of Valencia together with the United Nations International Methane Observatory (IMEO).
“What has happened is very bad, and it comes at a time when we urgently need to reduce emissions,” Manfredi Caltagirone, director of IMEO, told Reuters.
Until the Nord Stream, the largest methane leak in history was from the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in California. 100,000 tons of methane were released into the atmosphere between October 23, 2015 and February 18, 2016. The accident forced the evacuation of 30,000 people who lived in the nearby town of Porter Ranch, a Los Angeles County community.
Total methane emissions from the Nord Stream may continue to increase, albeit moderately. In number 1, all the gas accumulated inside the tube has already been consumed, but in number 2 there is still a leak, small, with a diameter of about 30 meters, according to the Swedish Coast Guard on Monday. Gazprom confirmed on Monday that the pressure has stabilized in the two pipes of the Nord Stream gas pipeline and in one of the two threads of the Nord Stream 2, and that the leaks have stopped.
The rupture of the gas pipelines occurred on September 26. Sweden detected a seismic movement of 2.3 on the Richter scale at 2:03 in the morning, and another similar one at 19:04. They presumably corresponded to separate explosions that caused the rupture of the gas pipelines.
Everything indicates that it was sabotage, although its authorship is unknown. The tubes, which connect Russia with Germany through the Baltic Sea, are difficult to access and are more than 70 meters deep. Breaks also occurred in at least four different points. In total, two leaks were found in each gas pipeline, two in the Danish zone and two in the Swedish zone, all in international waters. Moscow has accused the “Anglo-Saxons” of being behind the sabotage, while some Western countries have targeted the Kremlin.
Neither of the two gas pipelines was in service when the ruptures occurred, but the tubes did contain maintenance gas inside them. Gazprom, the Russian gas giant, cut off the flow on the 1 in early September, in a move that has been interpreted as penalizing Moscow for international sanctions stemming from its invasion of Ukraine. Nord Stream 2, a huge project to bring Russian gas to Germany, was never completed.
Main methane emissions
Methane emissions have a huge impact on climate change. In total, they are around 10% of greenhouse gases, but their effects last longer than others such as CO2.
“What the scientific community is telling us is that if between now and 2030 we cut methane emissions from agriculture, livestock, waste, gas and oil in half we could avoid a temperature increase of 0.25 °C of warming by 2050”, says Zavala-Araiza.
The expert assures that the Baltic Sea is just a specific case of emissions, an abrupt one. But there are others that are more subtle and continuous throughout the value chain of the oil and gas industry. “Many emissions are random and unpredictable, but others come from irresponsibility“, He says. He gives the example of oil tanks that leave the top hatch open, which emits methane; leaks from poorly sealed gas pipelines; or burners in wells that do not light and emit the gas without decomposing. In total, he calculates the 80 million tons of methane emitted by the industry.
The United Nations has a specific monitoring program for methane emissions, which increasingly incorporates the use of satellites to observe the emissions of this gas.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.