Originally published in French on Conflits – Republished with permission of the author.
If the explosions on Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines are the first signs of a new geopolitics of energy, the solution for the EU energy security and safety is to produce its own conventional energy.
Contributed by Samuel Furfari © 2022
Professor of Energy Geopolitics
Retired senior official of the European Commission
President of the European Society of Engineers and Industrialists
Doctor of Applied Sciences, Polytechnic Engineer
Energy is life. Without energy, we could not live. That is why our distant ancestors adopted, then invented ways to create fire. The use of energy is essential for life: animals and human beings eat because their bodies need energy. Moreover, energy is also the blood that runs through the veins of the economic system. In recent years, instead of seeing energy as a vital commodity, environmental activists have succeeded in reversing the logic by blaming energy for all the planet’s ills, to the point where energy is no longer spoken of in positive terms. Energy has become the symbol of pollution and climate catastrophe. A few days ago, at the end of a lecture, a student confessed to me that he had been shaken because I had shown, with data, that the quality of life measured by the UN HDI index and life expectancy at birth depended on per capita energy consumption. This correlation is also valid with CO2 emissions since 82% of the energy used in the world is fossil fuel. He had never thought about it. No one had ever told him that.
Will the current crisis be enough to bring us back to the common sense of the absolute priority of having abundant and cheap energy, as the founders of the EU said in the past? This is not certain, as the population has been so indoctrinated with negative and even catastrophic messages. But if the current crisis was to last and worsen, climate policies could face fierce opposition from the population, since it is true that the population cannot do without abundant and cheap energy, as the current panic demonstrates. Thanks to the development of technology and our energy resources (North Sea hydrocarbons and nuclear energy), the EU was able to escape the oil crises of the 1970s. The energy terrorism that may develop in the near future will have much more far-reaching consequences, as the EU is now much more dependent on energy consumption than it was fifty years ago.
The unexpected attack on Gazprom’s Baltic Sea pipelines
Nord Stream has been the subject of political tension for years, but now it’s about safety. On 27 September, two gas leaks occurred on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline and one on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, both belonging to the Russian company Gazprom. A second leak was detected a little later on the Nord Stream 2. It is likely that the leaks were caused by explosive charges placed near the pipelines for this purpose. Since 2012, Nord Stream 1, consisting of two pipes with a diameter of 1.4 m, has been transporting a total of 55 billion m³ per year (bcm/a) over more than 1200 km. Nord Stream 2, also with two pipes totaling 55 bcm/a, was completed in 2021, but has never been commissioned as Germany has not yet granted the necessary permits. These pipelines start from nearby locations in the Gulf of Saint Petersburg, cross the Baltic Sea in relatively shallow waters, between 70 m and 90 m deep. After passing through the Baltic States, Sweden and Denmark, the pipelines end at Greifswald in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, near the German-Polish border. As the EU imports about 170 bcm/a from Russia, the capacity of these pipelines represents two thirds of its imports. From a supply perspective, the loss of Nord Stream 1 does not disrupt the flow dynamics, as Russia had already suspended its flow since the end of August, citing technical and legal reasons.
The unknowns of the new hybrid war
Don’t expect me to tell you who carried out this ‘act of international terrorism’, as the Russian security service FSB called it.
These underwater explosions could only have been organised by secret services acting in concert with specially trained naval personnel. The explosive charges could have been dropped by marine drones from military vessels and then remotely detonated from aerial vectors. There is also speculation that if the Russians carried out the operation, they could have placed the explosive charges on the robot inspectors moving around inside the pipes. But this is just speculation. Those with the greatest interest in creating difficulties for Russia are, of course, the Ukrainians, but as they have no Baltic Sea frontage, their involvement in such a sensitive operation is questionable. The British certainly have the capacity to pull off such a coup, but would a newly installed government with budgetary difficulties embark on an adventure with serious consequences if the culprit were to be discovered? Other countries or groups of countries have the capacity to carry out such an operation. Some say that the US and Russia know who the culprit is, because either they did it and know they did it, or they did not do it and know the other did it. Some said that it could be the Russians who did it, because – stupidly – they blew up their pipeline in place of the new Baltic Pipe pipeline from Denmark to Poland to supply the latter with Norwegian gas (the link between the two Scandinavian countries has existed for a long time). Baltic Pipe, which received financial support from the European Commission when it was still allowed to deal with pipelines, was officially opened … on the same day as the first explosion. Can the Russians send men into space when they would be unable to identify their own underwater facilities?
Germany, deprived of Russian gas, will be forced to spend a winter without comfort for its citizens and with whole sections of the chemical industry at a standstill for lack of raw material (natural gas is methane, the basic molecule of this industry). There is a risk of serious difficulties in the event of cold spells this winter with stock-outs in March if demand is not significantly reduced. The situation will be even more worrying for the winter of 2023/24 as stocks will not be renewed next summer. In the face of this social and economic disaster, some Germans have been considering Russian gas supplies via Nord Stream 1. These explosions put an end to this hypothesis, unlikely as it is.
Some say that it was in the interest of the US to stop the Nord Stream pipeline in order to promote its future gas market and cut off Russian gas supplies to Germany. I think the global gas market is growing so fast that US shale gas producers don’t need to worry about selling their production. Nicolas Gosset, a Belgian military expert, adds that this is unlikely, as the US cannot pull such a stunt on Germany, one of its staunch allies. No doubt, but let us remember that Lord Palmerston said: ‘We have no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and it is our duty to follow those interests.
It is to be hoped that the investigations launched by the Swedish and Danish authorities and by the United Nations will determine the conditions of the leaks and identify the culprits. For reasons of transparency, it is desirable that the Russians participate in this international investigation. These four pipelines were taken out of service in a matter of days. It will take a long time to plug them up and then to remove all the water that filled them, causing damage that is not known to be irreversible. Gazprom will not be able to deliver gas through the Nord Stream pipelines for a long time. Moreover, it cannot be ruled out that the pipelines will be scuttled to allow Gazprom to invoke force majeure when, in a few years’ time, an arbitration tribunal will have to rule on penalties against Gazprom for non-compliance with take-or-pay gas delivery contracts to companies in Germany, France and the Netherlands.
Safety and security
In the energy field, safety is a generic term that refers to the technical, or even human or operational means to prevent risks of an accidental nature or acts of negligence. For example, it is particularly well known how to deal with the safety of nuclear power plants. The term security is also widely used to refer to the imperative need for availability of energy through careful management of supplies to avoid any disruption of supplies, since, as mentioned in the beginning, energy is vital. Security is a term relating to protection against deliberate acts of malice – including “international terrorism” – aimed at facilities, people, companies or countries to harm their interests.
The international terrorist act against the Nord Stream pipelines highlights our energy vulnerability in a world increasingly dependent on imported fossil fuels. Oil pipelines, gas pipelines, gas terminals, floating terminals, electricity cables are potential targets of a new kind of conflict. The same applies to digital data transmission cables; especially across the Atlantic. A cyber attack on data transmission facilities will happen; the only question is when?
It is virtually impossible to secure such infrastructure over thousands of kilometres. But it is understood that the pipelines supplying the EU, and Germany in particular, which is the most vulnerable because of its naive energy policy, must be monitored. For example, without the supply of Russian gas, if the supply from Norway were to be interrupted, the situation would be catastrophic. Contrary to what the media say, new renewable energies are marginal and will remain so. Moreover, the gap between fossil fuel and renewable energy consumption is widening. Between 2011 and 2021, the share of renewables in global energy demand growth was 39%, which means that fossil fuels and nuclear energy grew much faster than renewables. If you look only at non-OECD countries, this figure drops to 20%. Yes, 80% of the growth in energy demand in the booming countries was met by conventional energy. This is a far cry from the dream of “all green”. As a result, global competition to ensure countries’ security of energy supply will intensify. Security of energy supply is an issue in addition to the already threatened security of supply.
Concerns about nuclear terrorism
The conflict zone around the Zaporizhia power plants has raised and continues to raise many concerns. Ernest Mund and Michel Giot recently wrote: “Zaporizhia makes us aware of another possible cause of accidents: the occupation of a nuclear site by an army in times of conflict. Scenario planning in this area is not really the art of the engineer, but of the diplomat. Let’s hope that good and convincing ones are found, and soon!”
Sweden has decided to strengthen safety around its nuclear power plants. The government has asked all branches of government to be vigilant and has strengthened the safety measures of several critical infrastructure.
Preventing the worst
Since, despite its abundance, we have been unable or unwilling to use energy as a weapon to bring peace between countries, we face a new kind of geopolitical challenge. Blowing up gas pipes is certainly worrying, especially in winter. But blowing up electricity cables at any time of the year would cause power outages with extreme consequences in a globalised and interconnected economy.
The Desertec project, promoted in 2009 by the German industrial armada with the support of Angela Merkel, was seen as a ‘project of the future’. It was supposed to produce solar electricity in the Sahara. Its French corollary, the Medgrid project, conceived by Nicolas Sarkozy so as not to leave Germany alone in this announced success, aimed to export this renewable energy to the EU across the Mediterranean. These two projects were economic aberrations and were therefore abandoned on the sly. They were also ethically unsustainable given that less than half of the African population has access to electricity. We are now seeing a repeat of this aberration with Germany’s determination to produce – explosive – hydrogen in Africa. These fantasies should never have been entertained, given the risks and the huge consequences we would all suffer in the event of an ‘act of international terrorism’. With the powers that were envisaged, an act of sabotage would have plunged the whole EU into an electricity blackout with deadly consequences (no electricity for days in hospital and senior houses), paralysis of transport, industrial activities and cold homes if it were to happen in winter since even oil and gas heating systems need electricity to function.
It is astonishing that there are still proposals to build mega-grids for electricity supply or hydrogen transport…
The solutions that got us through the oil crises of the 1970s are still valid. It is urgent to rehabilitate hydrocarbon production in the EU and to promote nuclear energy. Producing our own hydrocarbons and nuclear power is both the best way to guarantee our security of energy supply and protect the safety of our infrastructure.
If we had not plunged into the all-renewable strategy with reckless enthusiasm, Vladimir Putin could not have waged his dirty war in Ukraine and his energy war against the EU. He realised that, as in Andersen’s fable about the emperor’s fine new clothes, we who pride ourselves on being wise are naked. And what is more, we have become vulnerable. Failure on energy security, failure on energy safety; the EU is paying a heavy price for its unilateral energy disarmament.
Some of the author’s statements in this text may seem iconoclastic to the non-energy specialist. They are supported by his two-volume reference work ‘The changing world of energy and the geopolitical challenges”. Samuele Furfari’s latest book is “The hydrogen illusion”.