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Blowing up the pipeline

WE all have those moments in our lives—a birth, a wedding, death—that are forever etched on our minds. Collectively we have the same experience often delineated by “where were you when…?”

“Where were you when martial law was declared?” “Where were you when the Baguio/Luzon earthquake hit?” Globally, there is always the recollection of the 1969 moon landing or the 9/11 attacks on New York City.

Events such as these range from the personal and direct to the remote and distant. However, we know, maybe not immediately, that something happened that has a possibility of changing the future for everyone. We all knew that 9/11 was different but we did not know sitting here 13,665 kilometers from the World Trade Center buildings how much different the world would be 20 years later.

It set off several destructive wars, led to the formation of oppressive surveillance states in the West, and undoubtedly deteriorated our way of life.

On Monday of last week, a sequence of headlines shook the energy world in a profound way. One observer described it, “While few events can compare to 9/11, what transpired on September 26, 2022 will have enormous implications—both economic and humanitarian—and adds an accelerant to a fire that was already dangerously hot.”

The US blames the Russians. The Russians blames the US. Speculation about the perpetrator is wild and rampant. Could it have been the Ukrainians? Or how about the Chinese? One credible theory backed with some viable data and facts starts with the fact that there were two “explosions” and pipe ruptures in the same general area but that these occurred 17 hours apart.

This experienced oil energy consultant postulates that this was an accident. These pipes had been lying dormant since July and there had been unexplained (or undisclosed) major disruptions in gas flow in December 2021-January 2022, February 2022, and April 2022.

“Under certain circumstances of pressure, temperature, and water presence natural gas/methane will form solid hydrates, particularly when the gas is not flowing, and these ‘plugs’ can continue to grow in the ice-cold environment, eventually exerting enough pressure to catastrophically rupture the pipe.”

Two issues come to mind. If this was an act of sabotage, and that is still the most likely answer, by whichever geopolitical player, we have entered a new phase of modern warfare. Further, how vulnerable are we?

The first Transatlantic telegraph undersea cable was laid in the 1850s from the coast of Ireland to Newfoundland. There are approximately more than 400 active cables worldwide covering 1.3 million kilometers and stretching from Iceland to Isla Navarino on the southern tip of Argentina.

Without these cables—more than 95 percent of international communications are carried over fiber optic cables—global communications would revert back to carrier pigeons. Regardless of what Elon Musk says about his Starlink satellite network, we depend entirely on undersea cables.

While much less common, there are 8,600 miles of active offshore oil and gas pipelines located on the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico, a major oil producing area.

One of the longest pipelines in use is the Langeled Pipeline that extends for 1,200 kilometers from the Ormen Lange field in Norway to the Easington Gas Terminal in England under the North Sea and used to transfer natural gas to England. However, we have major oil/gas undersea pipelines in our neighborhood. The Yacheng 13-1 subsea pipeline runs 780 kilometers from the Yacheng gas field, 100 kilometers south of Hainan Island to Black Point near Hong Kong. The Indonesian owned West Natuna gas pipeline runs 654 kilometers carrying gas to the coast of Singapore.

It is called “critical” infrastructure for a reason. And the more critical it is, often the more vulnerable to attack. That is our world today.

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