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The Nord Stream pipeline leak was an act of ‘sabotage’: Who might have done it, why, and what happens next?

Grid reporters answer five key questions about the pipeline attack.

It’s a mystery worthy of a Cold War-era spy novel: A pair of critical natural gas supply lines linking Russia to Europe are hit by unexplained underwater explosions in the Baltic Sea. The culprit is unknown, as is the precise cause. There are accusations of sabotage and fears for the environment, as the ruptures send giant bubbles of methane to the surface of waters off the Danish and Swedish coasts. Theories abound about who might have done it and why, as do fears about what the explosions could mean for Europe and for Russia.

An accident — a pipeline hit by a passing ship’s anchor, for example — has been ruled out, given the size of the leaks. “It is now the clear assessment by authorities that these are deliberate actions. It was not an accident,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told reporters in Copenhagen on Tuesday.

The immediate impact on Europe’s energy calculus is limited — given that the Russian supply had already been shut off — but longer term, the damage could affect natural gas prices, feeding inflation and pressuring the continent, amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and an energy war with Russia.

Much remains unclear about the nature, cause and impact of the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines. Grid tackles some of the core questions here:

How much gas was in the pipelines?

How dangerous is this for any vessels nearby?

How damaging is this environmentally?

While a sabotaged underwater pipeline may conjure images of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill or even the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the situation with the Nord Stream pipelines is very different and less locally damaging. The pipelines contain natural gas rather than crude oil; the gas will rise quickly through the water column and escape into the atmosphere, as video and images of a frothing circle over the leak have demonstrated.

How do you fix something like this?

Who could be behind this?

Europe’s assessment that the damage to the pipelines was “deliberate” inevitably begs the question: Who did this?

This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer — the question with the spy-novel qualities. That doesn’t mean a lot of people are shying from giving their answers.

Given the Kremlin’s actions over the past year, many were quick to point the finger at Russia. Could this, many wondered, be a new chapter in the energy war that is already roiling the European continent? After shutting off gas supplies via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, was Russian President Vladimir Putin raising the stakes even higher by damaging both of these critical energy supply lines?

The fallout, Peskov argued, didn’t just affect Europe — but also Russia, which relies on the pipelines to earn critical energy dollars. “Are we interested in that? No, we are not, we have lost a route for gas supplies to Europe,” Peskov said.

Indeed, as Richard Morningstar, former U.S. ambassador to the European Union and founding chairman of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, told Grid, “it is a strange situation.” For Russia, he explained, “it doesn’t make sense to damage the pipelines.”

But if not Russia, then who — and why?

There is no straightforward list of suspects. Some pointed fingers — with no evidence — at Western Europeans seeking to put the final nail in the coffin of any dependence on Russian energy. Others suggested that nonstate saboteurs might have been involved.

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