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The theories of what caused the Nord Stream leaks


Finger pointing and denials - that's what's emerged as it becomes clear to European leaders that leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2, underwater pipelines that run from Russia to Germany, were an act of sabotage. The leaks were caused by what scientists believe were explosions under the water that registered on the Richter scale. Natural gas has been leaking into the Baltic Sea for nearly two days. And NPR's Rob Schmitz has been following the story. He joins us now from Munich. Hi, Rob.


SUMMERS: Hey. So, Rob, investigators are now starting to look into this incident. What are the theories going around about what happened to these pipelines?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, there are no shortage of theories or blame to go around. And in the past 24 hours, we've heard a lot of ideas. But what's clear to authorities on all sides of this is what happened to the Nord Stream pipelines off the coast of Denmark's Bornholm Island in the wee hours of Monday night into Tuesday morning was likely an intentional act, and it likely involved explosives powerful enough to rip apart the concrete-coated steel that makes up these pipelines. Russian-state-run media has hinted the U.S. is behind this. A senior U.S. official said today that idea is, quote, "preposterous." Some European leaders, including the Polish prime minister, are pointing the finger instead at Moscow. Kremlin spokesmen called these accusations predictable, stupid and absurd that Russia would attack its own pipelines. The Kremlin wants Gazprom, who helps run both these pipelines, to be allowed to join the investigation into what happened. And Russia says it wants to convene a meeting of the U.N. Security Council because of this.

SUMMERS: And, Rob, if this was likely an intentional act, as you've said, could it be considered an attack on Europe since it was off the coast of Denmark, which is a EU country and a member of NATO?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's where this gets interesting. These underwater explosions took place just outside the territorial waters of Denmark. So it's the kind of detail that one might expect from a state actor who is being careful to ensure this was not carried out inside the territory of a NATO member. Also, the owners of the pipelines, companies based in Russia and Switzerland, are not headquartered in NATO countries. So both the location of the explosions and the property damaged would not, under NATO's rules, legally justify any kind of NATO or Western military response.

SUMMERS: Let's turn now to the natural gas that's leaking from these underwater pipes. Video taken by the Danish military shows a half-mile-wide circle of foamy bubbling water as the gas reaches the surface. And it does not sound like something that is good for the environment, right?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, you are correct on that. The silver lining here is that no gas was flowing in either of the pipelines. Nord Stream 2 was never started. And Russia had cut gas in Nord Stream 1 in August. But there was still natural gas inside hundreds of miles of pipes to maintain pressure inside of them. That's what's leaking, and it could take days to fully leak out. Now, natural gas is mostly methane. I spoke to Gregor Rehder, a professor of marine chemistry at the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research, about methane's impact on the environment.

GREGOR REHDER: The main issue is actually the greenhouse gas release of methane. So this methane goes into the atmosphere, stays there for on average 10 years, and per molecule has 25 the greenhouse gas potential of CO2.

SCHMITZ: In other words, Juana, methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 is. And Rehder says this single incident has released roughly the equivalent of 10% of Germany's annual methane emissions. Not a great day for those who care about reversing the effects of climate change.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Munich. Rob, thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.