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What caused 2 key natural gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea to rupture?

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we mistakenly say the rupture of the Nord Stream pipelines released hundreds of millions of metric tons of methane gas. In fact, experts' current estimate is that hundreds of thousands of metric tons were released.]

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Europe is investigating what caused two key natural gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea to rupture.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah, officials say the damage sustained by the pipelines running from Russia to Germany on Monday night appeared to be a deliberate attack. And some are accusing Russia of sabotage, which the Kremlin has called absurd.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz is with us this morning. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey.

MARTIN: So the damaged pipelines that we're talking about, this is the Nord Stream 1 and the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipelines. Walk us through what happened to them.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. On Monday night, scientists detected two underwater explosions large enough to register on the Richter scale near the Danish island of Bornholm. Soon after that, operators of both the Nord Stream pipelines reported drops in pressure. And footage released by the Danish military showed a half-mile circle of white, churning sea, essentially hundreds of millions of metric tons of methane gas, a harmful greenhouse gas, bubbling up to the surface. Now, neither of these pipelines are active. Russia cut flows in Nord Stream 1 in August. And Nord Stream 2 never opened. But both of them were still filled with natural gas when the explosions happened.

MARTIN: So that's kind of a crazy sight to see this happen...

SCHMITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And this water bubbling up like that. Explosions - pipeline explosions are really rare, especially underwater. What do authorities think happened?

SCHMITZ: European leaders believe this was not an accident. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said this to reporters yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER METTE FREDERIKSEN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, Rachel, she's saying here that we can't rule out that this was an act of sabotage. This is an unusual situation where you have three leaks on two gas pipelines in the same area, but with some distance between them. So she says it's hard to believe it was a coincidence.

MARTIN: So the question is, now, why would anyone want to intentionally blow up these pipelines? And how would that have been accomplished?

SCHMITZ: Right. Both were key pipelines that delivered Russian gas to Western Europe. Nord Stream 1 is majority-owned by a Russian energy company, Gazprom. And Nord Stream 2 is owned by a Swiss subsidiary of Gazprom. The U.S. criticized both pipelines, saying they made Europe, especially Germany, too dependent on Russia. Germany never opened Nord Stream 2 as a stance against Russian aggression. And Russia cut all gas in Nord Stream 1 as retaliation for EU sanctions. Russian state-owned news hinted the U.S. was behind this. But many in Europe are pointing the finger at Moscow. Poland's prime minister called this the next stage in Russia's war escalation. This leaves open the question as to why Russia would attack its own pipelines. But neither pipeline is being used. And Europe is working hard to replace the Russian gas that flowed inside these pipelines.

MARTIN: So I mean, how would they have even done this? I mean, if these suspicions are correct and it was Russia, how would it have happened?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, the investigation just started. But the pipelines are in water that is just a couple hundred feet deep. If a submarine did this, authorities should have detected that. One military source speculates that mines may have been laid from a disguised commercial vessel and then detonated later on.

MARTIN: Wow.

SCHMITZ: What's interesting here is these explosions took place just outside the territorial waters of Denmark. So it's the kind of detail that might be expected from a state actor who wanted to be sure that it wasn't carried out on a member of NATO. Also, the owners of the pipelines - companies based in Russia and Switzerland - are not headquartered in NATO territory. So both the location of the explosions and the property damage would not, under international treaty, demand any kind of NATO or Western military response.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz from Berlin. Thanks, Rob. We appreciate this.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 28, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
In this report, we mistakenly say the rupture of the Nord Stream pipelines released hundreds of millions of metric tons of methane gas. In fact, experts' current estimate is that hundreds of thousands of metric tons were released.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.