LONDON — NATO on Thursday left the door open to possible military action in response to what it said was deliberate sabotage after explosions on underwater natural gas pipelines between Russia and Europe.
“All currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” it said in a statement.
Western governments have pointed the finger of blame for the leaks at Russia, which has flatly denied any suggestion it was responsible for explosions that caused them.
“Up until now, the discussion has been about whether we will get enough gas for the winter, not whether there will be explosions in pipelines.”
— NIKLAS ROSSBACH OF THE SWEDISH DEFENSE RESEARCH AGENCY
The statement from NATO, a military alliance established in part to counter the then-Soviet Union's expansionism, added:
“We, as allies, have committed to prepare for, deter and defend against the coercive use of energy and other hybrid tactics by state and non-state actors. Any deliberate attack against allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.”
Leaks from the two underwater natural gas pipelines, Nord Stream 1 and 2, have caused the release of millions of tons of methane since they were first reported earlier this week. While neither pipeline is currently transporting gas, they contained huge amounts.
Methane is the second-biggest contributor to global warming after carbon emissions and is far more effective in absorbing the sun’s heat.
The Danish government estimates that in a worst-case scenario, a combined 778 million cubic meters (27 billion square feet) would flow into the sea from the two damaged pipes.
On Wednesday, Denmark’s energy agency said that more than half the gas in the pipes had already leaked into the sea and the rest would be gone by Sunday. The total is equivalent to 32% of Denmark’s annual CO2 emissions, the agency said.
Germany’s federal environment agency warned that there are no “containment mechanisms” on the pipelines, meaning there is nothing to stop the gas from flowing into the sea.
The leak is double the size of the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak near Los Angeles in 2015, the biggest single release of methane in U.S. history, according to Andrew Baxter of the environmental group EDF.
“It’s catastrophic for the climate,” he told The Associated Press.
Rob Jackson, a Stanford University climate professor, told the AP it would be the equivalent of half a million metric tons of methane. “Whoever ordered this should be prosecuted for war crimes and go to jail,” he said.
David R. Boyd, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said the leaks would worsen the climate crisis.
The episode also underlines how much Europe relies on Russia for its energy needs while the war in Ukraine rages on and energy prices spiral.
Nord Stream 2 was stopped by the German government last year, following years of warnings and protests from Ukraine and Western powers, including the United States.
On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described such claims as “predictable and also predictably stupid.”
Speaking Thursday, he said it was “very difficult to imagine that such a terrorist action could take place without the involvement of some state.”
Russia’s prosecutor general’s office said it would launch a criminal investigation into the explosions, adding that the country had “suffered significant economic damage.”
Jack Sharples, a research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, an independent think tank, said the damage could not be accidental given the robust, modern nature of the pipes, while the ecological impact could be vast.
“Europe isn’t getting gas from these pipelines but they are still full of gas ... clearly the local wildlife impact and the global warming impact are going to be substantial.”
Sharples added that the explosions have changed the energy security situation in Europe.
“Up until now, the discussion has been about whether we will get enough gas for the winter, not whether there will be explosions in pipelines,” he said.
Niklas Rossbach, a senior researcher at FOI, a Swedish defense research agency, which is part of the country’s Ministry of Defense, told NBC News that even if Russia isn’t behind the attacks, Moscow could use it for propaganda purposes and to shift blame toward the West.
“To summarize, it could be a way of burning bridges between the West and Russia,” he said.