Norway’s Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has invited the navies of NATO allies Britain, France and Germany to help address more drone sightings over key oil and gas infrastructure, as the North Sea begins to emerge as another stage for Russia’s war on Ukraine. Last week, Norway's domestic security agency opened investigations into new drone sightings near key infrastructure sites just hours after Bergen Airport, which is near Norway’s main naval base, briefly closed due to drone sightings. Norwegian police have been working closely with military investigators who are currently analyzing marine traffic. Some platform operators have reported seeing Russian-flagged research vessels in close vicinity, but so far, investigators have not been able to establish a discernible pattern.
“There can also be observations that could be other phenomena, for instance weather. We are sure that there is at least one,” AP cited Bergen police spokesman Ørjan Djuvik as saying.
According to deputy chief of the Norwegian Police Security Service Hedvig Moe, numerous drone sightings have been reported in recent months near offshore oil and gas platforms and other Norwegian infrastructure.
“We believe (the drone flights are) carried out in a way that makes it difficult to find out who is really behind it,” Moe has stated, although Norwegian authorities suspect Russian involvement in operating unmanned aerial vehicles that “can be used for espionage or simply to create fear”.
“Russia simply has more to gain and less to lose by conducting intelligence activities in Norway now compared to the situation before the war. It is simply because Russia is in a pressed situation as a result of the war (in Ukraine) and is isolated by sanctions. We are in a tense security-political situation, and at the same time a complex and unclear threat picture that can change in a relatively short time,” Moe said.
Seven Russian citizens have been detained over the past few weeks for flying drones or taking photographs of sensitive sites in Norway.
Notably, on Wednesday, a 47-year-old man with dual Russian and British citizenship was jailed for two weeks on suspicion of flying drones on Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The man has been accused of breaching sanctions which came into force after Russia went to war against Ukraine. Aircraft operated by Russian companies or citizens are prohibited “to land on, take off from or fly over Norwegian territory” under Norwegian law, which often is coordinated with the European Union.
Airport operator Avinor has revealed that 50 possible drone observations have been reported at Norway's civilian airports so far this year, nearly triple the 17 sightings recorded in 2021. The biggest concern is that Russian spies are using these drones as part of a hybrid war strategy to both intimidate and gather information on vital infrastructure, which Russia could later use for sabotage in a potential strike against the West.
“I do not believe we are heading for a conventional war with Russia, but a hybrid war. I think we are already in it,” Ståle Ulriksen, a researcher at the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy, has said.
European Gas Hub
Norway has long been a leading exporter of energy to Europe, and is rapidly replacing Russia as Europe's main source of natural gas and crude. Norwegian natural gas exports hit a record high 10.2 billion cubic meters worth 128.4 billion crowns ($13.26 billion) in July as prices and demand in Europe surged amid a global energy crisis.
All in all, Norway is set to deliver a new annual record of more than 117 bcm of gas through its pipelines in 2022. Meanwhile, the country’s full year production of oil liquids - crude oil, condensate and natural gas liquids (NGL) is expected to hit 114 mcm of oil equivalent, Reuters reports.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, European Union countries have scrambled to replace their Russian gas imports with shipments from Norway. Indeed, The Nordstream I and II pipeline debacle in the Baltic Sea last month happened a day before Norway opened a new Baltic pipeline to Poland.
Gas prices in Europe have lately plunged to their lowest level since June thanks to Europe’s gas storage running about nine weeks ahead of last year, an impressive feat even after flows from Russia have been severely curtailed. Currently, 93.4% of Europe’s gas storage has been filled.
Indeed, analysts at Standard Chartered Plc are saying that President Vladimir Putin’s gas weapon will be effectively blunted by the inventory build, with Europe set to go through winter “comfortably” without Russian gas. That said, Europe will have to pay a heavy price: the cost of replenishing natural gas stocks is estimated at over 50 billion euros ($51 billion), 10 times more than the historical average for filling up tanks ahead of winter.
And in the meantime, the North Sea is the perfect venue for Russia to launch a hybrid war–and an unofficial one that stokes fears and raises tensions. In a war that has employed energy as a weapon, taking Norwegian–or the entirety of North Sea oil and gas–offline would be the makings of World War III. That is exactly why it would seem that acts of sabotage and fear-inducing drone sightings are meant to be shrouded in mystery. With no official declaration of war, and with Europe hesitant to investigate jointly and present evidence against Russia, WWIII is avoided, while the threat remains.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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