The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The geopolitics of natural gas, explained

A photo taken Tuesday from a Swedish coast guard aircraft shows the release of gas from a leak in a Nord Stream pipeline in the Swedish economic zone in the Baltic Sea, near the Danish island of Bornholm. (Swedish coast guard/AFP/Getty Images)

Photographs hardly do the situation justice. Still images simply show some sort of disturbance on the surface of the Baltic Sea, a bubbling of unclear scale or origin.

What’s happening beneath the surface, though, is a thoroughly modern crisis. The bubbles are methane gas, escaping from underwater pipelines after an apparent act of sabotage. The mild disturbance shown in the photograph actually captures a complex mix of geopolitical tensions, the back-and-forth of energy markets and, both directly and indirectly, climate change.

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It’s probably useful to begin at home. The map below shows the intricate web of natural gas pipelines that weave across the continental United States, giving a sense of the scale of the network domestically.

You’ll notice the complexity shown along the Gulf Coast, from southern Texas across Louisiana. This is largely a function of offshore extraction, as you probably guessed. West Texas and Oklahoma are regions associated with fossil-fuel extraction, so no real surprises.

But then there’s that web of pipelines running from western New York into West Virginia. This is not a region typically understood as a center of drilling operations. And yet it is. That cluster of pipelines overlaps with the Marcellus Formation, a bed of shale rock buried beneath those states.

A little over a decade ago, the U.S. energy industry underwent a revolution. The development of new systems of hydraulic fracturing — using water to break apart shale to allow pockets of natural gas to escape — meant deposits like the Marcellus Formation became gold mines. North Dakota spent years at the top of the list of state population growth as people moved there to extract oil and gas from the Bakken Formation. The “fracking” boom was born.

This boom overlapped with domestic politics in an important way. Just as new deposits of natural gas were being unlocked, public awareness of climate change began to spike. Activists and then politicians began advocating for phasing out coal-burning power plants — a process made easier by the sudden availability of cheap natural gas, which also burns cleaner than coal. Electricity plants began retrofitting to burn gas.

You can see that shift below. In 2005, 60 percent of electricity generation came from burning coal; less than 10 percent was from burning gas. By 2021, natural gas had surged to 35 percent of generation, while coal had fallen to about 30 percent.

This transition was theoretically a net benefit for the climate. Burning coal produces carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas present in the world’s atmosphere; burning natural gas creates much less of it. (Greenhouse gases are ones that can absorb heat that would otherwise escape the atmosphere into space. Often the captured heat is redirected back to Earth.) But there was a problem: Natural gas is methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas. It is more than 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in trapping heat. And extracting methane from the ground often meant that some escaped into the atmosphere, dampening the climate benefit.

As the United States debated the interplay between addressing climate change and energy availability, similar discussions were occurring in Europe. Over the past decade, a number of European nations have implemented plans aimed at phasing out the use of coal in an effort to help reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. But phasing out coal means using something else to produce electricity. Given that there were also calls to end the use of nuclear reactors for production, that meant either rapidly scaling up renewable energy or converting to natural gas.

Over the past 30 years, Western Europe (here meaning members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has seen an increase in its use of natural gas relative to other energy sources. In many European countries, though, fracking is banned, meaning that there’s a need to import natural gas to meet demand.

Fortunately for Western Europe, there was a nearby nation with abundant natural gas supplies. Unfortunately for Western Europe, that nation was Russia.

As in the United States, there is a web of pipelines crisscrossing Europe. But we have an advantage that they don’t: Nearly all of our pipelines are contained within the same country. In Europe, the web sits on top of the existing web of national boundaries. Meaning that pipelines moving gas west from Russia often have to go through multiple countries — at times subjecting them to geopolitical pressures and varying laws.

In 2011, a pipeline was constructed that avoided much of that problem. Running from Russia in the northeastern corner of the Baltic Sea southwest to Germany, the Nord Stream pipeline allowed for a direct connection between those two countries. Earlier this year, Nord Stream 2 was completed, largely running in parallel to the first iteration, though originating from a different location. Its central advantage was that it doubled the amount of gas that could be carried.

The United States opposed the new pipeline for at least two central reasons.

The first was that it strengthened economic ties between Europe and Russia — and made Europe increasingly dependent on Russia for its energy.

The second was economic: The United States is in the gas-selling business, too, and there’s been a push to build terminals from which liquefied natural gas (LNG) can be shipped. But the infrastructure of transporting gas across the Atlantic Ocean is still largely in development. The pipelines to Russia are already there.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Suddenly, Europe’s reliance on Russian gas became a serious problem. The international community imposed severe sanctions on Russia, but the battle over importing Russian oil and gas was much more fraught. Germany froze the Nord Stream 2 project — but Nord Stream 1 was still flowing. Russia has leveraged its control over that pipeline to pressure Western Europe ever since. Several times, Russia has claimed that it had to restrict or stop transmission of gas through the pipeline, notably blaming sanctions for a lack of availability of parts. Earlier this month, Russia shut down Nord Stream 1 entirely.

Which brings us to the past few days. On Monday, Sweden detected a pair of underwater explosions in the region where the leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines began. The implication is that the lines were sabotaged. On Wednesday, German officials expressed concern that the lines could not be repaired, rendering them permanently inoperable.

First, of course, there’s the climate question. An enormous amount of methane was released when the pipelines were ruptured, perhaps 500 metric tons per hour. More methane release means more warming, however incrementally.

But there are also pressing geopolitical questions to answer. Who damaged the pipelines? Why? How does this affect natural gas supplies in Europe as winter looms?

All of this — history, politics, science, conflict — manifesting as the placid popping of bubbles on the surface of the sea.

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that natural gas does not release greenhouse gases when burned. It releases carbon dioxide, but at a significantly lower level than the burning of coal. This article has been corrected.

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