Loose cap caused blast in Austria that rattled energy market

By Matthias Wabl and Boris Groendahl on 12/14/2017

VIENNA (Bloomberg) -- The massive explosion that shut down natural gas flows for half a day in Austria this week was caused by a loose cap seal on a newly-installed filtering unit, according to investigations by the operator of the Baumgarten hub.

The cap was on an installation that removes solid or fluid parts from the gas stream. The incident triggered a chain of events that culminated in a blast that halted flows through the facility about 9 a.m. on Dec. 12, according to a statement from the pipeline’s owner, OMV AG’s Gas Connect Austria GmbH. Gazprom PJSC, the hub’s biggest user, suggested safety breaches were involved, a claim denied by Gas Connect.

“It’s totally unclear whether this was caused by human failure, faulty material or anything in between,” Gas Connect spokesman Armin Teichert said by telephone Thursday. “Anything on damages or impact on other pipelines is speculation until the final investigation report is here.”

The pipeline is one of the key entry points for gas flowing from Russia into central Europe. The incident pushed up gas, power and oil prices across Europe and triggered a short-lived emergency in Italy, which draws much of its supply through the line. Flows had resumed by the evening.

“The cap had come loose and was propelled with great force against another part, causing damage to this part as well,” Gas Connect said in the statement following an investigation by the company and Austrian authorities. “The gas which subsequently escaped was then ignited, leading to a gas fire at two points of origin.”

The explosion triggered an emergency plan that led to a shutdown of the entire hub, according to the statement. The Baumgarten facility is Austria’s largest reception point for gas and is about 31 mi northeast of Vienna. It has units that purify gas, removing any liquids or solids in the flow, and units for metering and compressing streams for shipment into other pipelines.

Once the damaged parts could be isolated from the rest of the hub, gas flows could resume from around 9 p.m. on Tuesday, the statement said.

Gazprom’s deputy head Alexander Medvedev said on Thursday that “safety violations during works” were to blame for the accident, according to Russian news agency Interfax. Gas Connect’s Teichert responded in an e-mailed comment that the preliminary results of the company’s and Austrian authorities’ probes didn’t confirm such a claim.

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