“Hail Mary, full of grace …”
Ok, the Nord pipeline incidents.
Sigh. I shouldn’t do this, but …
I call them “incidents” for a reason. I grew up in overseas oilfields. I try to, by training, observe everything from as objectively neutral a viewpoint as possible.
In my experience when anything involving energy-industry hydrocarbons explodes … well, sabotage isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. And honestly, when it comes to a pipeline running natural gas under Russian (non)maintenance, an explosion means that it’s Tuesday. Or Friday. Or another day of the week ending in “y”.
“But, LawDog,” I hear you say, “It was multiple explosions!”
Yes, 17 hours apart. No military is going to arrange for two pipes in the same general area to be destroyed 17 hours apart. Not without some Spec Ops guy having a fit of apoplexy. One pipe goes up in a busy shipping lane, in a busy sea, and everyone takes notice. Then you wait 17 hours to do the second — with 17 hours for people to show up and catch you running dirty? Nah, not buying it.
The Nord pipelines weren’t in use. To me, that means it’s time for maintenance! Hard to maintain pipes when product is flowing.
Pipelines running methane, under saltwater, require PMCS* quicker than you’d think, and more often than you’d believe.
I would bet a cup of coffee that any of the required weekly and monthly checks and services since the Russians took over have been pencil-whipped. (See Andreev Bay 1982.)
They officially shut it down in July of 2020 for maintenance, and had cornbread hell getting it back on-line, and “issues” with maintaining flow throughout the next year; shut it down again in July of 2021, with bigger “issues” — we say “issues” because the Russians won’t explain what these issues were — and even more problems, including unexplained, major disruptions in gas flow in Dec21/Jan22; Feb 22; and April 22.
Yeah, there’s problems with those lines. And these are the same folks that PMCS’d Chernobyl.
So. They’ve got pipelines with issues that are currently pressurised (with highly flammable, if not outright explosive, natural gas/methane), but not moving product. It’s time to find out what those issues are.
And they blew up. My shocked face, let me show you it. Next time, tell Sergei to put out the cigarette before pulling a pressure test.
Is there a possibility of sabotage? Yeah. Especially in the current world situation — but folks thought the Kursk went down because of hostile actions, too.
So, yes, hostile actions are a possibility, but mass amounts of explosive hydrocarbon gas + 300 feet down under salt water + shoddy Russian maintenance = “Nobody could have possibly seen this coming”, and yet another entry into the extensive Wikipedia page on “Soviet/Russian disasters”.
“But what issues could happen in an undersea pipeline that could cause ruptures?”
Oh, my sweet summer child. Many, many, many. You might go far as to ask, “What issues won’t cause a rupture in an undersea pipeline?” — It’d be easier to list.
However, in this case involving a natural gas pipeline under the pressure of 300 to 360 feet (8 atmospheres to 10 atm.) of water, I’d like you to turn your eyes towards a fun little quirk of nature called “methane hydrates”.
Well, actually, I’d like you to meditate upon “hydrate plug”, but give me a moment.
Under certain circumstances of pressure, temperature, and water presence natural gas/methane will form solid hydrates, with concomitant amounts of fun.
For the Chinese definition of fun, anyway.
Keeping hydrates from forming is a constant battle, requiring vigilance, expertise, diligence, and constant water removal. If any of these things slack at any time — you’re getting hydrate formation.
The presence of solid hydrates in a pipeline can cause flow issues (causing cracks), destabilize the pipe itself (more cracks), and cause fires (bad. Very Bad), but the big issue (pun intended) is when you form enough hydrates that it blocks the pipe entirely (see: Hydrate plug, above).
A hydrate plug is one massive pain in the tuchkiss to remove, and removal of said hydrate plugs is not a task to be undertaken by idiots, rank amateurs, morons, the terminally unlucky, or stupid people.
The Recommended Best Practice to clear a hydrate plug is a vvveeerryyy slllooowww depressurisation from BOTH ENDS, SIMULTANEOUSLY.
How slowly, you ask? For a pipeline the size of Nordstream we’re talking weeks.
As the line reaches local atmospheric pressure heat is transferred to the plug from the environment, and the plug begins to melt, starting at the plug/wall interface.
However, if you are a national gas company with institutional paranoia, a Nationalised aversion to looking weak or asking for help, and a Good Idea Fairy fueled by vodka — well, you can depressurise the pipe from one end.
Doing so from one end does happen, but carrying it out requires a lot of very experienced people, luck (no, more than that), and the favour of multiple gods to pull off.
If the Gods blink, or Jobu has a particular case of the hips at you, what generally happens is the hydrate plug will still melt at the plug/wall junction, but when it does, the pressurised side will launch the plug (five feet in diametre, and the same density as water ice) at almost 200 miles an hour down the pipe towards the depressurised side.
When this plug bullet hits a bend in the pipe — well, it doesn’t stop, nor does it change direction easily. It’s going to make a hole.
What’s even more fun is when somebody figures out what’s happening and slams the valves closed ahead of that fast-moving plug. It’s called the Diesel Effect — for those of you a little shaky on your High School physics, here’s an interesting video of the Diesel Effect.
Done watching? Good.
Now, I want you to imagine that the clear tube in the video is a gas pipeline. The piston part and the hand is a 200-pound chunk of methane hydrate; the force being applied by a human arm is being applied by that 200-pound chunk of hydrate moving at 130 miles per hour. And the cotton wool is actually just a section of pipe full of lovely, flammable natural gas.
Yeah. Boom. Big bada-boom.
If you’re lucky, the wall of the pipe will rupture before the ignition point … for various values of ‘lucky’.
Another fun thing that occurs to usually-intelligent people is to “gently warm the area of pipe where the plug is”.
Don’t do this. Methane hydrates disassociate really, really rapidly in the presence of heat. A pocket of gas will form somewhere inside the plug, next to the pipe wall, and the massive, localised pressure increase will rupture the pipe, spilling vapourised natural gas all over your heat source. (See “Bada-boom, above.)
Funny enough, this actually happened in Siberia in 2000-ish. Pipeline got a nice-sized hydrate plug, and the muckity-mucks at Gazprom got annoyed at how long it was taking to deal with it. Lot’s of yelling, and the Ops guy sent Some Random Schmuck down to the site of the plug with a butane torch, and orders to warm up the pipe to speed up the melting at the plug/pipe interface. Simple, right? There’s no way a butane torch has enough oompf to overcome the thermal mass of a pipeline and burn a hole through the line.
It didn’t. The heat from the torch caused a small pocket of the hydrate to sublimate into gas, the overpressure involved ruptured the pipe and opened a jet of natural gas right into the flame of the torch. Random Schmuck did not, we think (not sure they found anything of him) survive this experience, nor did several miles of very expensive pipeline.
Finally, for some reason, bureaucrats, politicians, amateurs, the alcohol-inspired, and idiots (but I repeat myself) always want to “Just blow that bloody plug out of the pipe”.
Don’t do this. Ever. Just … don’t.
There are three things required for methane hydrate to form: pressure, temperature, and H2O. Since methane hydrate is quite common under the Baltic seafloor, we can assume that the pressure and temperature of a pipeline running across that seafloor is conducive to hydrate formation.
But … where does the water come from?
Remember the paragraph above that mentioned: “vigilance, expertise, diligence, and constant water removal”?
Gas companies go to great lengths the remove water from natural gas, but it’s all predicated on the gas moving along. The sending side runs the gas through a media that removes water, and probably injects glycol or methanol into the stream just in case … but everything is predicated on the gas getting to the destination and out of the pipe.
Near as I can tell — and do correct me if I’m wrong — Russia charged Nord 2 with 300 million cubic metres of natural gas in July of 2021 … and it never moved. It just sat there. Under 300 to 360 feet of salt water.
To quote an email from a petroleum engineer: “Holy Jesus, that [deleted] pipline is one hairy snowball from end-to-end!”
Nord 1 got shut down after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the gas hasn’t moved since. Just … hanging around. At the bottom of a sea.
Yeah, it’s Russia. Those pipes are sodding well FULL of hydrates.
Am I saying that there is no way that these incidents could possibly be the result of deliberate direct action? No. That area is too full of idiots — HOWEVER:
It’s hundreds of millions of cubic metres of extremely flammable — nay, explosive — gaseous hydrocarbons being transported by Russians, and subject to Russian maintenance. And I’m here to tell you — Russian maintenance under the current oligarchy system isn’t any better than it was under the Soviet system.
It blew up. Until I see evidence of bad actions, I’m going to shrug and say, “Damn. Must have been a day ending in “y”.
“So, LawDog,” I hear you say, “What do you think happened?”
Honestly, I suspect someone in the Russian government pinged Gazprom, and said, “The EU is about to have a cold winter. make sure those pipelines sodding well work, so we can sell someone natural gas at massively increased prices.”
So, Somebody In Charge started running checks — and came up with hydrate slurry in both pipelines. After the running in circles, hyperventilating, and shrieking of curse-words stopped, somebody started trying to remediate both lines. Of course they didn’t tell folks down stream — no Russian want to look weak, and besides, there’s been a nasty uptick in failed Russian oligarchs getting accidentally defenestrated — they just unilaterally tried to Fix Things.
It’s methane hydrate. Trust me, if there’s a hydrate plug, there’s more than one. With both pipes having no movement for months, if not a year, there were a metric butt-ton of hydrate plugs, slurry, and rime in both pipelines.
The Fixing of Things went bad. One went Paws Up, and they started trying to stop the other — but pressurisation (both ways) is a weeks-long process, and the second went bad, too.
*PMCS: Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services