Just before 9 a.m. Tuesday, the gray skies over the far eastern reaches of Austria lit up with an explosion at a natural gas switching station, killing one worker, injuring almost two dozen others–and sending shockwaves through Europe’s energy supply infrastructure.
The blast in Baumgarten, a village about a mile from the border with Slovakia, generated a fireball so hot that it melted the plastic on cars parked half a kilometer away. With about 10 percent of Europe’s gas needs passing through the station, the wholesale price of the fuel spiked by 23 percent, to its highest level in four years, as cold weather settled over much of the Continent.
“I rushed out,” said Walter Hansie, 88, standing in front of his grandson’s tractor shed about a kilometer from the gas facility. “A fireball was rising in the air. Nothing like this has ever happened here before.”
The Baumgarten explosion highlights the fragility of Europe’s energy infrastructure. Hours earlier, a crack no wider than a hair and no longer than a hand shut down the Forties Pipeline System, a web of mostly undersea pipes that brings crude from platforms in the North Sea. And the Rough gas storage site–built to stockpile U.K. energy supplies–is being permanently decommissioned after deteriorating pipelines made it unsafe to operate.
Most of Europe’s gas infrastructure was built from the 1960s to the 1980s, as the Soviet Union began tapping Siberian fields to pump supplies westward in exchange for hard currency and production expanded in the North Sea. Like an old washing machine or refrigerator, those facilities require increasing levels of maintenance–just as rising demand for energy means they’re seeing more wear and tear. With today’s low commodity prices, replacing most of the equipment is out of the question. So repairs, and worries about dangerous incidents, will…