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Nord Stream Repair No Easy Matter

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Damage from alleged explosions at the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea could be difficult to repair and will be complicated by growing Western sanctions against working with Russia, according to a well-placed industry source.

Danish and Swedish investigators continue their work at two leaks on the Nord Stream pipeline and another leak on Nord Stream 2, believed to have been caused by sabotage.

The industry source, who is close to the projects, stressed the complication of repairing such damage to undersea pipelines, and predicted that Nord Stream is likely to remain out of action throughout this winter and potentially longer.

The two pipes were each designed to bring 55 billion cubic meters per year of natural gas from Russia to Germany, although neither was flowing at the time of this week's incident — Moscow had suspended flows through Nord Stream and the Ukraine crisis prevented the start of Nord Stream 2.

Until additional assessments of the damage are made public, it is impossible to know how hard it might be to repair either of the lines, a process that Russian officials have said must include Gazprom as the outright or majority owner of the two pipes.

"I think it's too early to say that it is absolutely beyond repair," the source said. "I think that we have to expect the pipe to be, in any case, out of action through the winter."

Any number of factors could play into the length of time it would take to repair the damage and the cost required to bring the line back into service. "The greater the length of pipe you have to bring up and the more work you have to do, the more time it would take," the source said.

The job would be further complicated by the incursion of seawater into the line.

“Seawater definitely is a problem" as it can corrode and damage portions of the pipeline beyond the initial holes.

Even with a speedy assessment of the damage and response, there is no certainty that Nord Stream would be back online even by the winter of 2023/24: "I wouldn’t put my money on it," the industry source said.

Hampered by Sanctions

The conflict in Ukraine, which has seen energy supplies increasingly used as a weapon by Russia and the West, poses an obvious obstacle to any cooperative attempt to repair the damage.

Western sanctions add another layer of complication, the source said.

Sanctions put in place before Russia's invasion of Ukraine made construction of the Nord Stream 2 line difficult, as the US sought to hamper Gazprom's ability to finish the project by targeting special pipelaying vessels.

The recent proliferation of measures limiting the provision of services and technologies to Russia will make any repair even harder.

"The list [of service firms able to work on the project] would be shorter … than in normal times," the source said.

All these challenges assume that Gazprom — which owns 51% of Nord Stream and 100% of Nord Stream 2 — would try to move ahead with repairs.

But Germany has already cut Russian gas imports from 40% of its total supplies to just 9% of total consumption — albeit with a push from Gazprom itself, which has systematically stepped down flows over the past six months, citing a series of technical problems.

Given plans by the German government to phase out Russian gas altogether, there may be limited commercial incentive to make the potentially costly repairs needed to return the lines to service.

No Accident

While speculation has swirled around who might have been responsible for the damage to the Nord Stream lines, there seems to be little doubt that they were purposefully sabotaged.

"The lines are very well built. They're solid. They're state-of-the-art," said the industry source. "I would not expect … a simple industrial incident because of lack of safety precautions or whatever."

The pipeline routes were surveyed to ensure there was no unexploded ammunition from past conflicts, and they were leveled and prepared to prevent steep slopes. "It very much looks like a deliberate act of sabotage," the source said.

For more coverage of the Ukraine crisis, visit Ukraine Crisis: Energy Impact >

Topics:
Security Risk , Gas Pipelines, Gas Supply, Military Conflict, Ukraine Crisis
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