NordStream leaks: Risks and concerns for subsea pipelines and cables

Tom Walters (Partner) and Johanna Ohlman (Associate) at global sector-focused legal firm HFW have noted in an article that the alleged sabotage and attacks on the NordStream pipelines have highlighted the importance of the UK and Europe’s extensive infrastructure network of pipelines and cables. The events have also exposed several risks and legal issues.

The writers observed that the August 2022 UK Government report National Strategy for Maritime Security was prescient to the events in the Baltic, highlighting as it did the UK’s vulnerability as a result of its dependency on maritime trade. The report recognized the need to protect not just ports and shipping routes, but also the subsea infrastructure, in order to safeguard both goods and crucial data traffic.

HFW said that, where a cable or pipeline is insured, marine insurers would need to assess the terms of cover, which might include exclusions of cover for ‘warlike’ or ‘malicious’ acts. Although accidental damage to subsea infrastructure remained more prevalent than deliberate acts, it would be important to be able to investigate and analyze events to identify and determine any coverage issues. “This might mean assessing what steps a pipeline or cable owner could or should take to safeguard its infrastructure”, Walters and Ohlman wrote.

Consequential issues that could have implications for marine insurance could also include the powers of other nation-states where a cable or pipeline passes through their maritime boundaries (such as the need to obtain their consent for carrying out repairs) and where the responsibility would fall for clean-up costs if a damaged pipeline leaks hydrocarbons.

HFW warned that “as illustrated by recent events, the threat to the UK’s and Europe’s subsea infrastructure is a real one”.

The UK Royal Navy has committed its frigate Somerset to join a Joint Expeditionary Force, which is planning to deploy in the North Atlantic. This is to ensure international cooperation and secure critical marine infrastructure, including thousands of kilometres of underwater pipelines in the North Sea. Further, the Royal Navy has commissioned two specialist multi-role ocean survey vessels to patrol and protect underwater infrastructure.

“The question is whether these efforts will be enough and whether there may be room for the private sector to assist and complement the steps taken by the national government, including through use of autonomous vessels”, the writers concluded.