Nord Stream 2: How Do You Secure an Underwater Pipeline?

The planned subsea pipeline Nord Stream 2 is highly disputed. In addition to political points of discussion, environmental protection remains at the forefront of the debate. Construction of a 1,200-kilometer pipeline across protection areas in the Baltic Sea could cause enormous damage – as would leaks. Advanced safety measures are of extreme importance.

Transporting natural gas from the Yuzhno-Russkoye oil and gas field in Russia to Germany takes 12 days. Along the 1,224-kilometer journey, gas flows through nearly 200,000 pipes that lay on the seabed and each weigh 24 metric tons. Since 2011, the Nord Stream 1 subsea pipeline has provided gas to Europe. Now, Nord Stream AG wants to install a second pipeline that would run parallel and pump an extra 55 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe annually. The project has caused much political and environmental uproar. Environmental organization Friends of the Earth Germany has already filed a lawsuit.

Explosive: The Risk Posed by Gas Leaks Is Huge

The nature conservation area on the German side of the Baltic is a natural habitat for harbor porpoises, lamprey, and sea ducks. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline would pass right through this area and nature conservationists fear that it would threaten life under the water. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), laying the pipes alone would release around 12,000 tons of phosphate from the seabed into the Baltic Sea. The consequences for fish and other sea dwellers could be immeasurable due to over-fertilization. And when natural gas begins to flow through the pipes, the risk of ecological damage will increase. Natural gas mainly comprises of highly flammable methane. If this were to enter the sea as a result of a leak, it would not only pose a threat to sea life, but also present the risk of explosions. Not to mention the consequences on the atmosphere should the gas reach the water surface. Despite these environmental risks, Nord Stream AG plans to complete construction of Nord Stream 2 in the Baltic Sea by the end of 2019.

Side Note: The Longest Pipelines in the World
  • 4,700km: Crude oil flows through the Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean pipeline from Russia to Japan, Korea, and China.
  • 4,196km: The Yamal–Europe pipeline brings natural gas from Siberia, across Russia and Poland, to Germany.
  • 1,287km: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System transports oil from the North to the South of Alaska.
  • 1,166km: Before Nord Stream, the Langeled pipeline was the longest subsea pipeline in the world, running from Norway to the UK.
  • Planned to be 1,900km, the EastMed pipeline would be the longest and deepest subsea pipeline in the world – connecting Greece and Cyprus, via the Mediterranean region.

Sensors across 1,200 Kilometers

One thing’s for certain: safety measures on the ocean floor will play a decisive role in the planning. Every risk and tiny leak must be immediately identified along the entire 1,200km line. Sensors placed at regular intervals along a subsea pipeline can communicate information about pipe pressure. Gas in the Nord Stream 1 pipeline flows at around 200 bar on the Russian end, but enters Germany at around 100 bar. These values are detected by sensors and directly delivered to a central hub where software monitors them constantly. Should the pressure diminish below a certain point, a cut-off valve must be immediately activated as wear and tear or sabotage may have caused a leak. Such was the case on the North coast of Scotland in 2012: After a leak occurred at the Elgin oil platform belonging to energy giant Total, 200,000 cubic meters of explosive gas poured into the North Sea. And it continued for months, fortunately without causing severe damage.

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All Factors at a Glance

To avoid detrimental effects, leak detection and location needs to be carried out as quickly and precisely as possible. Safety systems need to have a clear view of pressure, temperature, and flow. Specialist solutions for pipeline management enable this. Based on sophisticated algorithms, they can automatically recognize the smallest of pipeline damages, alert the central office, and in extreme cases, even close off the affected section.

Deep Sea: Extreme Conditions for Hardware
In subsea conditions, challenges for installed safety systems are especially difficult – they need to withstand extreme pressure, vibration, and temperature. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the American Petroleum Institute (API) have issued their own standards for this. ISO 13628-6 and API 17F explain in detail what must be considered when designing and operating control systems for subsea production.