Nord Stream gas leak underscores the need to end all fossil fuel use

From what I can tell, there are still rather a lot of people clinging to the notion that we’ll be able to keep the fossil fuel industry by just capturing all the carbon that’s emitted, and storing it. That line of thinking is useful in two ways – first and most importantly, it justifies continued obsession with short-term profits. The second is that it’s a framing of the problem that doesn’t require systemic change. At it’s core, I think the popularity of this idea comes from its appeal to the group of insatiable ghouls who would rather see humanity go extinct than lose their ill-gotten fossil fuel empires. It’s the bedtime story they tell themselves to quell those rare pangs of conscience, and to give their sycophants an excuse to maintain their blind loyalty.

The reality is that we must end the extraction and use of fossil fuels, and we must do it as quickly as we can.

Even if the day-to-day operations of fossil fuel corporations didn’t do massive environmental damage, and leak unforgivable amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, the fact remains that the infrastructure is both prone to failure (because the corporations are too greedy to spend on improvements), and it’s also vulnerable to attacks. We do not currently know for sure whether the Nord Stream pipelines burst due to accident, negligence, or a deliberate attack, but no matter what the cause turns out to be, we are all being hurt by this:

Scientists fear methane erupting from the burst Nord Stream pipelines into the Baltic Sea could be one of the worst natural gas leaks ever and pose significant climate risks.

Neither of the two breached Nord Stream pipelines, which run between Russia and Germany, was operational, but both contained natural gas. This mostly consists of methane – a greenhouse gas that is the biggest cause of climate heating after carbon dioxide.

The extent of the leaks is still unclear but rough estimates by scientists, based on the volume of gas reportedly in one of the pipelines, vary between 100,000 and 350,000 tonnes of methane.

Jasmin Cooper, a research associate at Imperial College London’s department of chemical engineering, said a “lot of uncertainty” surrounded the leak.

“We know there are three explosions but we don’t know if there are three holes in the sides of the pipe or how big the breaks are,” said Cooper. “It’s difficult to know how much is reaching the surface. But it is potentially hundreds of thousands of tonnes of methane: quite a big volume being pumped into the atmosphere.”

Nord Stream 2, which was intended to increase the flow of gas from Russia to Germany, reportedly contained 300m cubic metres of gas when Berlin halted the certification process shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.

That volume alone would translate to 200,000 tonnes of methane, Cooper said. If it all escaped, it would exceed the 100,000 tonnes of methane vented by the Aliso Canyon blowout, the biggest gas leak in US history, which happened in California in 2015. Aliso had the warming equivalent of half a million cars.

The Aliso Canyon gas leak was the first time I can remember that the public was able to actually see greenhouse gas emissions in a major way, thanks to this infrared footage:

I don’t know if anyone had their minds changed by that incident and the coverage of it, but if so it clearly wasn’t enough. I’ve said in the past that one of my concerns with nuclear power is the danger posed by war and by terrorism. I still think we should be using nuclear power, but I think that security and the dangers of a rapidly changing climate are both valid concerns if we’re going to massively increase our use of that technology. Fossil fuels have all of the same problems, except that they are already driving us towards extinction at a rate few believed possible even a couple decades ago.

This leak, to use an overly-appropriate simile, is like pouring gasoline on a flame.

I believe the warming of our climate has already gained enough momentum that it would keep warming for centuries even if we cut off all fossil fuel emissions tomorrow. I believe we can influence that, and in time possibly even reverse it, but it’s important to understand that we are already rolling down that hill. Our current emissions mainly serve to accelerate us further out of control.

And this? Well, I suppose time will tell how severe of a problem it is, but we did not need this right now. We really didn’t. Things were going badly enough already.

Prof Grant Allen, an expert in Earth and environmental science at Manchester University, said it was unlikely that natural processes, which convert small amounts of methane into carbon dioxide, would be able to absorb much of the leak.

Allen said: “This is a colossal amount of gas, in really large bubbles. If you have small sources of gas, nature will help out by digesting the gas. In the Deepwater Horizon spill, there was a lot of attenuation of methane by bacteria.

“My scientific experience is telling me that – with a big blow-up like this – methane will not have time to be attenuated by nature. So a significant proportion will be vented as methane gas.”

Unlike an oil spill, gas will not have as polluting an effect on the marine environment, Allen said. “But in terms of greenhouse gases, it’s a reckless and unnecessary emission to the atmosphere.”

Germany’s environment agency said there were no containment mechanisms on the pipeline, so the entire contents were likely to escape.

The Danish Energy Agency said on Wednesday that the pipelines contained 778m cubic metres of natural gas in total – the equivalent of 32% of Danish annual CO2 emissions.

We’re not going to see a global spike in warming that’s clearly due to this leak. It’s a lot, but it’s not that much. That’s the good news. That said, this would not have happened if sundry global “leaders” were not continuing to build new fossil fuel infrastructure as though change is neither wanted, nor needed. I suppose for them, it’s not. They can just leave when things get rough. It will be interesting to see what changes are attributable to this leak – it wouldn’t shock me if there was measurable local warming associated with the methane plume and prevailing winds. This is just speculation but it’ll take time for that much gas to disperse around the world, which means it should be in higher concentrations in some areas for a while.

The real problem is that I can say with complete confidence that this will not be the last massive natural gas leak. There will be more. If greed and lust for power continue to fuel war around the world, then whether or not this pipeline was attacked, others definitely will be, wherever warring nations depend on this energy source. More than that, changing weather conditions will also lead to pipeline ruptures, and the day to day operations of the natural gas industry are already criminally destructive to the climate. Even if all emissions were captured at the smokestack and tailpipe, the gas leaked daily, and the gas leaked from incidents like this will continue adding speed to our “downhill” tumble into global warming hell. At this stage, the mere existence of the fossil fuel industry is a global security risk.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that we’ll see the needed change any time soon. That means that we keep looking for ways to build collective power, and we keep preparing to help our communities through disasters when they hit. There’s a lot of grim news out there, so just remember that it’s not over till it’s over. Till then, we fight.

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  1. SchreiberBike says

    Cui bono (Who benefits?) Who did it? I can imagine a way almost every country might, but also might not. At less than 100 meters depth, it’s within the range of skilled technical divers which any nation/state and some independent groups would have available.

  2. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Those waters are quite well monitored by Danish and Swedish defence forces. They would have detected any major operation near the pipes. My favourite plot is that the explosives were installed already when the pipes were laid, and the explosions happened when someone pressed a button in Moscow.

  3. says

    Germany’s environment agency said there were no containment mechanisms on the pipeline, so the entire contents were likely to escape.

    So, they just figured that the pipe would never leak? Their plan for leaks was “won’t ever happen”?
    For some reason, I’m reminded of the phrase “too stupid to live.”

  4. says

    @LykeX – that’s correct. Remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster? That’s when we found out that all the oil companies’ “cleanup plans” for the Gulf of Mexico involved shit like how to take care of walruses, and had an expert contact list filled with dead people. Then the cleanup involved the exact same useless technology they used for the Exxon Valdez spill back in 1989. ALL of their research funding goes into new ways to access and process the stuff, none of it goes into cleanup. It’s much cheaper to lie about how nobody could have seen it coming, and run a disingenuous PR campaign.

    And so we are all punished for the greed, recklessness, and sadism of the ruling class.

  5. says

    On the issue of an attack/sabotage, I feel like the easiest option would be a “kamikaze” submersible drone. It’d be small, cheap, and possible to slip in without drawing attention. I dunno, maybe I’m missing some technical thing that would make that impossible?

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