WSJ: Fearing sabotage, Europe patrols pipelines with mine hunters and unmanned subs

    WORLD  26 November 2022 - 12:56

    The Italian navy mine hunter ITS Numana was sailing recently above a pipeline carrying natural gas from North Africa to Europe when its sonar detected a metal object close to the line.

    Until recently, the Italian navy didn’t spend much time inspecting underwater pipelines. That changed on September 26, when explosions ripped through the Nord Stream natural-gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea in an apparent act of sabotage, The Wall Street Journal reports. Since then, protecting the pipelines, energy grids and natural-gas terminals that keep Europe’s lights on and homes heated has become a national-security priority across the continent.

    Protecting Europe’s energy infrastructure is a gargantuan task. There are more than 6,000 miles of gas pipelines that cross Norwegian waters and the Mediterranean Sea, and more than 1,000 offshore oil-and-gas installations in European waters. Energy and security analysts said any attacks on them akin to the Nord Stream blasts would take months, if not years, to fix because of how difficult it is to reach the pipes and the damage seawater can cause.

    Thanks in part to a warm fall, gas storage facilities across Europe are now mostly full. But any gas shortfall this winter risks tipping its economy into a severe recession. Economists have identified two main risks: a prolonged cold snap, and a catastrophic incident at a gas pipeline, reserve storage facility or other crucial piece of infrastructure. Such installations were largely unprotected, making them the softest of targets, security officials said.

    At the time of the blasts, the Nord Stream pipelines weren’t carrying any gas to Europe. Afterward, leaders in Western Europe quickly turned their attention to Norway, now the continent’s biggest provider of the fuel.

    At times the Russian fleet isn’t far behind. When Norwegian and British frigates went on patrol in the southern Barents Sea last month, they were shadowed by Russian navy vessels, according to the Norwegian Armed Forces.

    The Norwegian coast guard’s patrol vessel KV Tor has modified its usual route to pass the onshore oil and gas facilities that dot the western coast. “We take down the speed, use binoculars and radar, and see if there’s something that’s not normal,” said the captain, Jørgen Varpe Wallem.

    On land, armed reservists stand guard outside the Kollsnes gas processing plant and other energy facilities. Coast guard boats patrol around drilling platforms in the North Sea, and companies are using remotely operated underwater vessels to check the pipeline network that carries natural gas to European buyers.

    In Germany, which depended heavily on gas delivered from Russia through Nord Stream, the government said it was boosting police presence on the seas with helicopters and ships. Germany also is securing the floating liquefied natural gas terminals being built to take shipments from the U.S. and elsewhere. Any delay in the expected year-end openings could lead to gas shortages and force the government to ration energy.

    For Italy, a priority is protecting the underwater pipelines that carry gas from North Africa and Azerbaijan. The Italian navy now has a mine hunter and military divers constantly scanning the underwater gas pipelines and telecommunication cables, which often rest more than 3,000 feet below the surface.

    It also is building a database indicating the precise location of objects on the seafloor that have already been investigated, from plastic buckets to dishwashers.

    Since the mission began in late September, no evidence of sabotage has been detected.

    “Does that mean it can’t happen?” said Italian Navy Rear Adm. Riccardo Marchiò, commander of Italy’s mine-hunter force. “No. But our level of readiness is very high, and higher than it’s ever been.”

    Caliber.Az

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