Europe Confronts the Reality of Energy System Sabotage

Physical attacks on critical European energy infrastructure have risen since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, threatening energy security and the pace of the low-carbon transition.

Sabotage of critical energy infrastructure has been on the rise, most prominently in Europe, where multiple attacks have targeted subsea electric transmission cables and natural gas pipelines, including Nordstream, since the start of the war in Ukraine.   

These disruptions come at a time of upheaval in the energy system, as nations push forward with the construction of expansive carbon-free energy infrastructure, spanning renewable generation and electric transmission networks. Simultaneously, European countries have raced to develop new LNG import terminals and pipelines to replace natural gas that had been supplied by Russia. Yet, until recently relatively little public attention has been paid to the challenge that physical sabotage presents to energy security and climate goals.

Benjamin Schmitt, a senior fellow with the Kleinman Center, explores the daunting task of protecting vast networks of often remote infrastructure from everything from hostile nations to small bands of rogue actors. He also discusses why culprits can be so difficult to identify, and how threats to energy infrastructure might undermine public support for the expansive projects needed to transition to a low-carbon energy system in Europe, the US, and elsewhere.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone.

The last two years have witnessed a growing number of physical attacks on critical energy infrastructure. The highest profile of these attacks has occurred in Europe since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and includes assaults on subsea electric transmission cables and natural gas pipelines, including the attack on the Nord Stream gas pipeline in the fall of 2022. These disruptions come at a time of upheaval in the energy system. Globally, the race is on to build expansive carbon-free energy infrastructure, including renewable generation and electric transmission networks.

At the same time, European countries have moved quickly to develop new natural gas infrastructure, including LNG import terminals and pipelines to replace natural gas that had been supplied by Russia. Never before has the rapid development of new energy infrastructure been so critical to the simultaneous priorities of ensuring energy security and of minimizing the energy system’s environmental and climate impacts. Yet, until recently, there had been relatively little public attention paid to the vulnerability of energy infrastructure to physical attack. On today’s podcast we’ll explore the growing awareness of physical energy security threats and the daunting task of protecting vast networks of often remote infrastructure from sabotage by hostile nations and rogue actors.

Today’s guest is Benjamin Schmitt, a Senior Fellow here at the Kleinman Center, whose research has focused on the physical security of the energy system. Ben will discuss recent energy system attacks, the vulnerabilities they reveal, and the need for coordinated efforts to deter future assaults on the energy system. Ben, welcome to the podcast.

Benjamin Schmitt: Hi, Andy. It’s great to be here.

Stone: So the vulnerability of energy infrastructure attack has really come to the fore, particularly over the last couple of years since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Could you get us up to date on Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s energy system and the extent to which Ukraine has been able to respond and defend that system?

Schmitt: Thanks for bringing a focus onto this issue, Andy. I think it’s something that we’ve talked about — cybersecurity of critical infrastructure — and I think rightfully so, for many years. But we’re kind of going back to the future, as it were, and thinking about physical energy infrastructure and how communications infrastructure threats go back in history all the way to the 1800s.

There was a telegraph convention that came out in the 1880s on protection of what was eventually understood to be not just some novelty, but something that’s critical to infrastructure, in that case telecommunications infrastructure. So this is something that I think has been brought to the fore and skipping all the way to the logical apex of such actions is what we’ve seen happen since February of 2022. Russia, to the greatest extent possible, has been on their side targeting energy and critical infrastructure facilities across Ukraine to undermine Ukraine’s resiliency, to undermine its ability to respond militarily, and I think from the Russian side, trying to exacerbate a humanitarian crisis to reduce support for the war within Ukraine and also create a burden for the international community in terms of financing the reconstruction of Ukraine when we get there.

I think this has really hit home across the West, the need to start thinking about critical infrastructure protection, not only in a conflict zone, but also outside where we see hybrid threats, we see what are known as “gray zone threats” or sub-military threshold threats — in other words, unattributed or sabotage or acts that really don’t, in the traditional sense, meet the threshold of an announced war like we’re seeing in Ukraine, where Russia is just shooting Iskander missiles at electricity substations and power plants and things like this.

So we have these two dynamics going on, the raw and the horrific infrastructure attacks meant to exacerbate the already tragic humanitarian crisis in Ukraine on one side, and then we see across the West, as this is going on, these drip, drip, drip attacks on critical — and in particular, many of these being offshore — energy and telecoms infrastructures.

Stone: You mentioned obviously getting beyond the war zone itself, and the war has mobilized change and driven European countries to rapidly find replacement supplies of natural gas. Germany, among others, has responded by building new LNG import infrastructure to receive gas from the US and elsewhere. How much new infrastructure of this type has been developed, and what is planned in Europe, still in response to the war?

Schmitt: Quite a bit, Andy. And we have to remember this has been a policy of the United States in terms of its energy diplomacy working with the EU to support the EU’s own energy diversification goals for many, many years now, especially over the past decade. That led to a number of infrastructure projects that were long in train coming online in the opening months of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. We saw Poland in particular take the lead in terms of developing energy infrastructure to reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas.

For example, already in the early ’90s, the Polish government was working on a project to build a pipeline from the Norwegian offshore via Denmark and directly importing natural gas from the Norwegian shelf for the first time in history, effectively creating the first European gas supply going from west to east and undermining what was energy infrastructure that was built during the Soviet era, which was a lot of point-to-point, monolithic pipelines that the Soviet Union built between the Russian Federation, Russia in this case, and all of the states of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR.

These projects were long in train, as I said. So you have the Baltic Pipe project that came online in 2022. That’s Norway, Denmark, to Poland; but you also had the Gas Interconnection Poland with Lithuania. Of course a few years earlier, in 2016, the Lithuanians themselves had already tried to wean themselves off of their former status as an energy island and build the Independence Terminal at Klaipèda in Lithuania, to bring non-Russian gas into the Baltics for the first time.

Then we of course saw in the few years before the war took place, the Balticconnector project was built. This is a project that connected Finland and Estonia. So you have all of these various projects across Central and Eastern Europe going on because these countries — and they often say, “The closer you get to Moscow, the more you understand its threat.” These countries have been developing this infrastructure for many, many years. What hadn’t been happening, Andy, was really anything to diversify Germany’s energy infrastructure.

So in Western Europe, there wasn’t this recognition of Russia as a threat, and quite the opposite. The Germans took this view of Wandel durch Handel or “Change through Trade,” where there was a whole lot of Handel going on, but not much Wandel. So a lot of trade, but not much change. The Russians became more and more authoritarian, and all of their strategic corruption and everything like that flowed downstream into Germany and then to Western Europe, with projects like Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2.

When I’ve been asked in the past, “What did Germany do to diversify, like Central and Eastern Europe did between, let’s say 2010 and 2020?” They didn’t. I can’t name one major project to diversify energy infrastructure in Germany. That changed in February, 2020. That changed rapidly.

Stone: That changed very quickly because it seems like up until the very beginning of the war, Germany had its classic stance in place. Is that right?

Schmitt: That’s right. And so immediately you saw a coalition government that was in place, led by the greens, in this case, in terms of the energy infrastructure development, build rapidly, four, you have basically four different LNG terminal projects approved to move forward. One of the first ones that was actually completed was at Brunsbüttel, Germany. That is a facility that I visited as a part of my Kleinman research grant for this project, and that’s a little bit up the Elbe River from Hamburg, the port of Hamburg. The idea is that those sorts of facilities, one in Wilhelmshaven, one in Brunsbüttel, one in Lubmin in the Baltic Sea. In both the North and Baltic Sea coasts in Germany, you can really see that they finally have the diversification infrastructure to bring non-Russian gas into the mix.

Stone: So Ben, it sounds like there is a substantial amount of new energy infrastructure in Europe, yet outside of the war zone. Recent attacks, I imagine, call into question security of this new infrastructure. Tell us about these attacks.

Schmitt: I think we need to step back to what was going on just before the large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Of course the war has been going on continuously since 2014, the original legal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine and the Donbas by the Russian Federation. The large-scale invasion marked a different turning point in terms of what was going on before and what was going on after. One thing that has remained fairly consistent has been Russia’s signaling that it would have the ability to impact critical infrastructure in a variety of ways.

I think that for all of the things that we’re about to talk about with the infrastructure attacks that have taken place in the Bering Sea, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea across Northern Europe, on November 15, 2021, I think the first salvo in this new era actually took place above us. What I mean by that is Russia on that date launched a direct-ascent, anti-satellite weapons test against a former defunct Soviet spy satellite and created a field of space debris that not only damaged the orbit that it was in, but it also created space debris that forced the International Space Station to duck and dive to get away from this debris. And that, of course, included threats against astronauts onboard from NASA and from the European Space Agency, but also Roscosmos’ Russian cosmonauts.

So I think that’s the first signal that we saw that Russia was possibly going to start attacking critical infrastructure. Just before, a few weeks before the large-scale invasion, in January of 2022, we saw the first large hint that this might be going on, again, many of these are still unattributed. But one of the attacks that clearly happened was against the fiber-optic cable connecting Tromso, Norway with Svalbard, which is a set of islands, an archipelago near the North Pole, which I also had a chance to visit through my Kleinman grant. In this connection, a fiber-optic telecommunications connection connects to the SvalSat facility. SvalSat is the highest latitude ground-based commercial satellite telecommunications facility on the planet. And the reason that it is so important is that it allows for a connection, a down-link connection to all 15 of the main polar orbits for the commercial satellites. That means that commercial geospatial imagers, things like Planet and Maxar that you’ve been seeing take images of the conflict zone in Ukraine on a daily basis — you see it in the press. You also certainly can imagine that the Ukrainians use this for strategic purposes.

At the same time, you also have things like Starlink and commercial communications satellites that the Ukrainians use, as well. So one of the two main subsea telecommunications cables, fiber-optic cables, was severed at that time, between Tromso, Norway and Svalbard in the Bering Sea. It took several months, but eventually a pan-Nordic public broadcaster investigation saw that through AIS tracking of vessels, the automatic identification system that vessels should have on, that allows their location, their heading and information about the vessel to be tracked. We saw that there was a report that one Russian fishing vessel traversed this cut zone, something like 120 times in a short period of time. Again, unless the fishing, Andy, was really, really good at this exact location, it’s going to be hard to believe that this wasn’t an intentional act.

But again, using possible civilian infrastructure or vehicles, in this case a commercial fishing vessel to possibly hide and guise the act as a potential accident really changes the game, in terms of attribution of whether this is actually a state actor attack or something else. And again, that’s really something we saw as the war was heating up.

Stone: Ben, I also understand that there have been some electric cables that have been cut. And it just makes me think if some actor or actors are trying to disrupt fossil fuel deliveries, they may also be trying to disrupt electric system operation, particularly as the electricity system becomes potentially and hopefully more important as we decarbonize the electricity system.

Schmitt: That’s right, Andy. In the opening weeks of the war, we saw a cable between Sweden and the Danish island of Bornholm get cut. It was unclear at the start whether this was an attack or an accident. It seems like this one in particular, this electricity cable, was cut by a commercial vessel that happened to be anchoring there and shouldn’t have been. And so it legitimately had an accident that broke that cable. But then again, that raises alarm in an environment where a lot of infrastructure now is seemingly fair game because we’ve seen this happen for state actors to go after in some sort of hybrid warfare scenario.

Stone: I just want to bring up the point that you made a few minutes ago, that this is primarily subsea infrastructure. Why?

Schmitt: I think there is a good history on subsea infrastructure being maybe an escalating without escalating approach for infrastructure attacks, by one state actor to another. And the reason for that is that first of all, these are very — in a lot of cases — very remote locations, or at least somewhat remote locations. The Baltic Sea is not so big, but it is quite large, as are the North and Bering Seas, certainly. What we have is a difficulty with attribution, right?

When you’re doing something out on the high seas, especially if it’s in international waters, but even if it’s in exclusive economic zones and not the territorial waters of any Baltic Sea literal state or country in the North Sea or Bering Sea, these change the types of responses and the ability to monitor and things like this are just degraded the further out you go. I think it’s only natural that a country that wants to step up attacks on another region might start there. It might be part of their calculus to go after critical infrastructure in a location where the escalation response might not be as much because the attribution might be very difficult, because the geopolitical locations of these attacks, in terms of international law, might not have as direct a state impact for how to respond.

What I mean by that is in an exclusive economic zone, a country might not have as many rights to investigate or even in international law, go after another state if they did something, unless they had a copious amount of evidence. And it’s difficult, again, being so far offshore, to get that evidence because there’s a vast, vast —

Look, 70% of the world is covered in ocean. That’s a vast territory to patrol, even when a small percentage of that has critical infrastructure beneath it, but there are ways. We can get to those ways later in this discussion, but there are ways to mitigate that, that states really need to take into consideration.

Stone: As you pointed out, no one has really claimed responsibility for these attacks. So if you’re the owner of attacked infrastructure, or if it’s of interest to you, you have to kind of read between the lines of who is doing this and why they may want to do it. It’s interesting, some of these pipelines, for example. Holes were drilled into those pipelines, I understand. So it’s not like those were accidents. Those are real, deliberate events.

Schmitt: Yes, what I think you’re referring to is the revelation we saw last month in which the Brunsbüttel LNG terminal, this floating storage regasification unit, FSRU, that’s been deployed to Brunsbüttel in Germany, that I was mentioning earlier. The developer was trying to build a pipeline that would bring gas from that terminal, beyond the regional focus that it had been on, and get it into the national gas grid. So a very short pipeline, a few tens of kilometers, to get down to Hamburg, and then into the main grid.

Well, as they were apparently doing testing, the transmission system operator was doing testing of that pipeline, and the commercial operator, as well, they found that they couldn’t pressurize the pipe. And what they had found when they inspected this was that there were various holes drilled in the pipeline. And so the question of that is again — Is a state actor behind it? Is it a green activist group? Is it possibly a green activist group that has state actor funding, or even fellow travelers that have the same sorts of goals? It just again raises that threshold because we’ve seen Russia sponsor far-right groups, far-left groups, green groups, all sorts of things to kind of disrupt the political situation in Western democracies. And certainly it’s not beyond the realm of speculation that that could have happened in this case. But again, we don’t know.

And again, even though that was onshore infrastructure in this case, it’s going to be difficult to find attribution, unless there’s significant evidence that has been brought to bear because even onshore, these pipelines can be in remote locations.

Stone: It seems like what you’re getting at here is a lot of the intent here may be just to destabilize, right? To destabilize the energy system, to sow concern?

Schmitt: Yes, I think so. If we want to flip to the most covered story in this case, the Nord Stream 1 and 2 attacks that took place in late September of 2022, I think that sowing discord or sowing doubt about the potential for a smooth energy system during this large-scale invasion of Ukraine — that could have been a motivation for the Russian Federation to do it. I know that there are many who flippantly say out in the media and on social media, “Why would Russia ever go after its own infrastructure?” My quick response is to say that I don’t know necessarily that that’s exactly what happened, but you have to look at the various threads and think about what they were doing at the time.

What they were doing at the time, Andy, is from February, 2022 through when this happened in September of 2022, the Russians had significantly reduced — between June and July and August — the volumes of gas going through Nord Stream 1. Remember, Nord Stream 2 had been sanctioned early in the war and ultimately wasn’t operating, but Nord Stream 1 was still operating. And so the Russians cut gas in June of 2022. They claimed that Siemens’ turbines that were under repair in a facility outside of Montreal in Canada needed to be released from sanctions, to allow them to get this back, to replace turbines that were supposedly not working for Nord Stream 1.

Of course the German ministries came out immediately, technically, and showed that this was not necessary and kind of a hoax. The Russians have cut off gas through gas pipelines in Europe dozens and dozens of times over the past 20 years, and never once have they literally come out and said, “This is for political reasons.” They always claim some sort of faux technical reason. But ultimately what they are doing is trying to get a political confession. I think in this case, they were trying to get technology export controls on a critical good lifted. Ultimately, unfortunately, even though we knew that this was a hoax across the West, Germany and the US pushed Canada to up-end their sanctions. They ultimately waived sanctions in Canada and unfortunately set a precedent that allowed Russia to see — I think throughout the summer of 2022 — that they could weaponize energy in exchange for concessions and sanctions. That set a dangerous precedent.

So when you flip to the end of that summer, on September 1st or so, the Russians had fully cut off Nord Stream 1. They hadn’t taken back the turbines, because of course they didn’t need them. And then two weeks after that, the pipelines were attacked. You have to look at who had the motivation and the capability. The motivation, generally destabilizing further the energy situation in Europe, as they were going into the first winter. Remember, the Germans at that time were trying to make a big decision politically on whether they would send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and so the idea that this would be destabilizing German energy security at the same time that the only remaining main pipeline to Europe through Ukraine, through the war zone — that was still one of the only ways to get Russian gas into the European system.

That is now sitting in a war zone where just weeks after the Nord Stream attacks, Russia would commence its large-scale bombardment of Ukrainian critical infrastructure. And without that pipeline, that would create even more issues for Europe. And so if Russia was able to say, “Okay, we’ve taken the fallback options of Nord Stream off the board. We’re now bombarding electricity grid systems and power plants and things like this across Ukraine.” But they haven’t significantly targeted the Ukrainian Gas Transmission Network, which brings Russian gas through Ukraine to Europe. So they could kind of message to the Germans, “Guess what? You shouldn’t send the Leopard tanks, and in fact, you should try to push Ukraine towards some sort of settlement because that would possibly avoid a larger-scale energy crisis in Europe that would destabilize economies across the continent.”

Stone: I understand that the EU does have a robust policy on physical infrastructure defense, and there has also been some transatlantic coordination on the issue, particularly since the war in Ukraine has begun. What frameworks are there, and are they sufficient to address the threat?

Schmitt: There are a lot of frameworks that have come up, especially since the large-scale vision, but in particular, I think the watershed moment wasn’t the small-set cable cut. It wasn’t the ASAT tests that the Russians did in orbit. It was the Nord Stream attacks. That was really high-profile. Obviously you had the “churning maw of the sea,” as I call it, Andy. You had all of this methane gurgling up from the Baltic seabed.

Stone: Yes, dramatic images of that.

Schmitt: You can see Planet satellite data showing this from orbit. You can see this very dramatically going on, Danish F-16 rapid response was the first video that came out, and I was frankly shocked, even though this is something that I thought might happen one day, given the way that Russia weaponizes energy infrastructure. But they’ve set up at NATO headquarters in response to a critical offshore infrastructure protection cell. That is a policy cell at NATO headquarters in Brussels to coordinate a NATO response and NATO monitoring of offshore infrastructure. They’re going to be setting up or are already in the process of setting up an operational arm of that at Maracom, outside of London, in the United Kingdom.

You see the United Kingdom basically deploy and build out a few former commercial vessels that are now I think requisitioned or effectively operated by the British Royal Navy to do critical offshore infrastructure patrolling. So all of these mechanisms are there, and part of the reason that we’re seeing this is that that wasn’t the end. Of course Russia had multiple seabed warfare-capable vessels on-site at the Nord Stream blast sites before Nord Stream blew up. But of course you also have these notions that a pro-Ukrainian sailboat sailing from Germany might have done this. And you have Russian conspiracy narratives coming out across social media, that the US and Norway did this.

So I think that the more response capabilities, the better, to try to make sure we have attribution, so that disinformation doesn’t reign. We don’t know exactly who did it yet, but I think the Russians had the most capable vessels. This offshore mission director that they have, the GUGI vessels that were on-site with subsea warfare technology and minisubs and ROVs and UAVs and things like that. So that’s really something to look at.

Also in October of 2023, we saw the Balticconnector pipeline between Finland and Estonia get ruptured, and multiple telecommunications cables between Sweden and Estonia, and Estonia and Finland got cut by what was pretty quickly shown to be a Hong Kong-flagged vessel called Newnew Polar Bear, which of course has a funny-sounding name, Andy, so it’s hard to write academic papers about it, but the Newnew Polar Bear plowed through hundreds of kilometers of infrastructure on the seabed in the Gulf of Finland. The notion is, was this an accident, or was this on purpose?

When I’ve talked to ship captains and commercial shipping experts, this isn’t the sort of thing where you drop an anchor in a storm, and then plow on at full speed for hundreds of kilometers. That’s something that can happen. Yes, you stop, and at a few kilometers of drag, you might run into something, but you wouldn’t do this over that period. And of course this starts the notion of, well, was China behind this because of the flag on the vessel?

Well, I think there’s been a lot of media scrutiny on China’s possible role, but you have to remember that this thing stopped in Kaliningrad. It stopped coming into the Baltic Sea. It stopped on the way out. There were reports from The Financial Times that they might have switched crews to a Russian crew. This is a vessel that six weeks earlier wasn’t Chinese at all. It was mostly operating in the Baltic Sea.

Again, attribution is key. I think that a lot of this, as it goes on, has to be part of our policy response. I was at a conference talking about my Kleinman research on European energy security and critical infrastructure production in Bonn, Germany just a few weeks ago. I had to leave that conference, ironically enough, early because the train line between Bonn and the Frankfurt airport that I had to take — the high speed rail one had been attacked in an infrastructure sabotage incident that morning, where power cables were cut on that train line.

So it’s happening a lot and all over, throughout critical infrastructure, not just energy but telecoms and transport, et cetera, and we’re not tying these together. We’re seeing that these are all kind of these individual incidents, but I think at a certain point, the West finally is starting to recognize that a coordinated response and at least monitoring and investigative norms have to be set up to look at this.

Stone: So Ben, an interesting point here to follow up on with what you’ve just said. It’s like we’ve got sort of a gray area war going on. I don’t know if that’s the correct terminology or not here.

Schmitt: World war cable.

Stone: Yes, so these attacks are happening. It’s not clear that people really want to make it known that they are responsible — groups or countries, whatever it may be. So as you just said, deterrence is really going to be important, and deterrence seems to me to be very closely tied in with the ability to attribute these attacks. So again, knowing that much of this is subsea, knowing that this infrastructure is spread far and wide, what opportunities are there to monitor and attribute over vast territories, to see when these events happen and determine who caused them?

Schmitt: Yes, that’s a massive, massive challenge, and that’s going to create a lot of work to rethink how all of the data streams that we have on hand for both classified intelligence, government intelligence, and also open-source intelligence, which is something that I’m focused on here at Penn, can help fill in the gaps. And I think that one of the things that my research project has brought me around to speak with dozens and dozens of experts and officials and military officials and things like this around the Baltic Sea and the North Sea has really taught me is that each of the individual countries in Europe has vastly different — not in every case, but in some cases — adjacent countries can have vastly different regulatory environments, can have vastly different rules of engagement for their various law enforcement and military and coast guard agencies and things like this, on how and where they can operate.

Certain literal states in the Baltic Sea, for example, have a police force or port security, a coast guard for offshore and environmental security, and a military that does the rest. But what do they monitor? What sort of data do they have? The police might have a police helicopter and some surface vessels. The coast guard might have some planes and some surface vessels. They have kind of that surface environment. Then you have military that could have subsea monitoring capabilities. But maybe some of those data streams are classified, and you can’t share it with the private sector.

Likewise, the private sector has cables, electricity cables, for example those that run across the Baltic Sea for electricity and elsewhere. They have fiber-optic cables inside that you can monitor hydroacoustic information, and those sorts of datasets need to be in that central location, as well, so that there’s good monitoring and support. So whether NATO and its offshore infrastructure protection cell is the way to do that, probably more likely through their operation center than setting up in Maracom in London.

National authorities need to really understand how they interact and also make sure that they know who they’re talking to, right? I’ve seen some states that have a police force for the offshore but no coast guard. Some have a police force, a coast guard, and a navy — this sort of thing. So they really need to know who to pick up the phone to talk to and respond in these sorts of incidents, and make sure that the private sector is involved early and often because for all of these, we don’t necessarily know the best way of merging this information and then merging it in notifying commercial actors that there are other areas, I think maybe more creative that they may not be thinking of naturally as part of their business model or even their security model.

For example, Andy, you and I talked about in the past geospatial imagery, right? Commercial geospatial imagery from companies like Planet and Maxar and government open-source agencies like NASA and European Space Agency. ESA runs the Sentinel Satellite Program, for example, open-source geospatial imagery. You have a lot of cases where you look at, just for attribution purposes, looking back, what vessels were at the scene of the crime when it happened? That’s not always easy to do, because you would have had to have a satellite over the site, definitely imaging that site, and have it to be downloaded and stored in a way that can be recovered.

I think one of the things that we have to connect here is that if I’m a commercial geospatial imagery company, I want to sell my imagery. That’s what I’m there for. I’m going to put a satellite into orbit. I’m going to fly over the Earth and take an image of a construction project in Center City, Philadelphia. The building owner is going to pay me $5,000 a couple of times for progress photography. Very cool, right?

So as a result of that, they have an incentive to go over populated areas where there’s commercial construction and things like that going on, and take images of this, because they might sell it. On the flip side, open ocean, that’s a lot of data storage and transfer and money to spend on these sorts of things, where you might not get any buyers. However, if these companies that operate subsea infrastructure were able to have a more robust relationship and dialogue — and I think that’s starting to emerge, but we’re not there yet — with these geospatial imagery companies, you start to have a situation where, guess what? That might look like just kind of wave tops, but there’s a cable or a pipeline or something like that below that we really need to make sure we’re monitoring it.

And I think that that’s a key here because the more datasets and fidelity in imagery that you have in a certain area, the higher the chance is that you’ll maybe catch the actor that’s doing it red-handed. Part of that is it shows that these actors won’t be able to, in the future, operate with impunity, where they think they can go out on the high seas, do something like this, cut or blow up a pipeline, and then skedaddle off someplace else, and no one will be the wiser. Well, guess what? If you have a bank with a bank robber, if there are two banks sitting next to each other, one has a security guard and camera system and everything, and the other one is really well protected, but it doesn’t, then I might try to rob the bank that has no cameras. So it’s kind of that thing on the grandest scale from space.

Stone: I want to ask you a question here about the public’s response to this. What has the public response been to these attacks? Are they worried? Are there any political implications for this? Are there any implications for support of building out massive new infrastructure when this infrastructure could be vulnerable to attack? What are your thoughts on this?

Schmitt: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. I’ll just say that in general, for all of these, in the absence of information, disinformation, conspiracy theories, social media viral conspiracy theories — they reign. I think the biggest message is, of course, on the messaging front, I think the Estonians and the Finns did a great job with Balticconnector on early and often making very detailed statements about what they knew, what they didn’t know, and that tamped down on disinformation. Whereas in the Nord Stream case, I think it was so shocking and so fresh, that there was not as coordinated a media strategy. I’ll say that just as a general rule for these infrastructure attacks.

For the future, though, I think how people have reacted is that they do see a threat. I was on Bornholm having meetings for this research project I’m doing with Kleinman, and one of the things I witnessed as we were driving across this island — again this is the island that’s a Danish island, very near both the Nord Stream 1 and the North Stream 2 blast sites. I was speaking to folks on those topics. But driving across the island between meetings, I saw some farmers’ fields that had signs, hand-painted signs up, that said, “Danish Energy Island, No.” They had a picture of Nord Stream on the sign, having been blown up, and they basically were getting to the fact that they were opposing putting this new, large-scale wind farm offshore of Bornholm, with the concern that, “Well, if we put more infrastructure out there, it’s just going to get attacked.”

So this is a main thing when we think about the energy transition, to think about how we’re going to actually protect these dispersed infrastructures that are built out, especially in the offshore environment. I was at COP28 in Dubai with the Penn delegation and talking to a lot of folks about this, to try to make sure that physical security, good old fashioned physical security of energy infrastructure is part of the energy transition plan. We have a real threat here that if we build all these offshore wind farms, which I think is so important for the energy transition, but then forget that it’s going to be hard to blow up a thousand windmills across a coastline. But it might not be as hard to cut the high voltage transmission lines that bring the energy power to shore. So if you have a situation where you’re creating all of this energy-dispersed infrastructure, but then it results in energy insecurity in some way because of an attack, you might lose the electorates’ willingness to go along with the infrastructure development for the energy transition, and that’s going to make it impossible for us to sustain the level of political support needed to address the climate crisis.

Stone: The final point I want to make here or get your input on, Ben, is that obviously this is not just limited to Europe, these infrastructure disruptions that we’re talking about, these sabotage events. Just in the last few days, there was a communications cable that was cut between Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa, which actually those cables carry communications between China and Europe, so they’re quite essential. And we’ve seen some attacks here, an attack in Baltimore perpetrated by a couple of white supremacists who are looking to forward their aims by disrupting the electricity supply in Baltimore.

So we’re seeing this for a lot of different reasons in a lot of different places, but it doesn’t sound like we’re going to see the end of these threats any time soon.

Schmitt: Unfortunately, no. I think we’re only at the start of this, as I said earlier, maybe World War Cable. I don’t know if we want to describe it as this, this global hybrid set of concerns. And again, as you pointed out there, state actors, non-state actors, right? You had in Baltimore, just down the road from us here in Philly, this pair of neo-Nazis who were, I guess, shooting guns at substations to try to create energy insecurity in Baltimore, just an absolutely horrific sort of event, but not a state actor behind that.

And then, of course, you have the statement by the Houthi rebels in Yemen that claim that they are going to cut this cable in the Red Sea, and ultimately, that cable in the past 48 hours, before we went on air here, has been cut. I’ve already seen speculation that it really depends on where that cable is found to have been cut. If it’s near the shoreline, then yes, the Houthis probably would have the capability to go down and sever that cable. But if it’s in the main shipping lane in deep water, then maybe one of their supporters, state actors that actually have these capabilities, e.g., in this case Russia, who has been backing to some extent the war in Yemen and the Houthis. There’s some speculation they’re trying to kind of stick a finger in the eye of the US and the UK, who are trying to uphold international shipping in the Red Sea corridor.

They might be supporters and have the capabilities to do this on behalf of them. So we’ll see. I think we’re not there yet. The research continues, and thankfully Kleinman is going to continue to be looking at this. Stay tuned for a report coming soon. I’ve been saying that for a while, but coming soon as this issue set grows and grows, from myself and a few co-authors on this, and trying to look at lessons learned from these attacks and what we can do in the future to actually mitigate them or at least get attribution.

Stone: Ben, thanks very much for talking.

Schmitt: Thanks so much, Andy. It was great to be here.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Ben Schmitt, a Senior Fellow with the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.

Benjamin Schmitt

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center and SAS
Benjamin Schmitt is a joint senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Penn. He is also an affiliate of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and associate of the Harvard-Ukrainian Research Institute.