Events this week confirm that Turkmenistan has taken a decisive strategic decision to diversify its gas exports not only beyond Russia but also beyond China.
First, and perhaps most spectacularly, Ashgabat has announced that it will rely upon its own financial resources and technology to renovate and rebuild the East-West Pipeline across the southern part of the country, opening the possibility that gas from the eastern provinces of Turkmenistan may eventually transit to Europe.
That strengthens the prospects for the Nabucco pipeline project, which is planned to take gas from the Caspian Sea basin through Georgia and Turkey to the Baumgarten hub in Austria for distribution throughout the European Union.
Second, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is making his first visit to India, and discussions about the long-bruited Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline will figure prominently in his negotiations. Third, it now appears likely that the United Arab Emirates will receive a concession to explore for hydrocarbon resources in one of the blocks of the country’s offshore Caspian Sea sector.
Turkmeninstani news agencies announced that the state enterprise Turkmengaz will fund the East-West Pipeline project, in which another state enterprise, Turkmennebitgazgurlushik, will participate. The pipeline will be designed for a capacity of 30 billion cubic meters per year (bcm/y). The design phase will start immediately, and it is anticipated the construction will be finished in five years.
The gas will come from the South Yolotan field, which a British firm, Gaffney Cline, estimates holds 6 trillion cubic meters, within a possible range of 4 trillion to 14 trillion cubic meters. (See Turkmenistan gas sets Ciceronian riddle, 30 October 2009).
In March last year, the signing of a deal for Russian participation was postponed in Moscow, without warning, by Berdimuhamedow himself, who ostensibly had travelled there for the purpose of that signing. A condition for Russian participation would be that the gas go to Russia. That same month, Turkmenistan announced an international tender for the project, for which it is reported that over 70 companies from all over the world submitted bids. Relations between the two countries worsened further after an explosion in April 2009 that severed gas exports to Russia for the remainder of the year.
For this Turkmenistan blamed Gazprom’s subsidiary in the country for diminishing the quantities it was taking without telling their Turkmen counterparts: the resulting gas buildup would have caused the explosion. Russian media in turn blamed the poor condition of the pipeline in Turkmenistan as well as Turkmengaz's technical workers. In fact, the explosion helped Gazprom save money by cutting losses from its previously agreed contract with Turkmenistan. Exports to Russia, as well as earnings, plummeted. Some reports suggest that Russia's imports from Turkmenistan this year will barely amount to 10 bcm.
The latest announcement on the pipeline also effectively kills a trilateral project including Kazakhstan to renovate and refurbish the segment of the Central Asia-Center pipeline that the three countries had, at Russia's behest, designated the Caspian Coastal Pipeline (CCP), also "Prikaspiiskii" and, erroneously "Pre-Caspian". This idea was originally introduced by Turkmenistan's former president Saparamurad Niyazov in 2003, but its authoritative agreement was delayed throughout the decade. (See Four-way street in Kazakhstan, 18 September 2009.)
As to the TAPI pipeline project, this showed potentially significant development as Berdimuhamedow agreed in New Delhi to promote a bilateral intergovernmental commission as a principal forum for economic cooperation with attention to energy questions. India declared its interest in the implementation without delay of the TAPI project, noting that it looked forward to the participation of its experts in hydrocarbon exploration, development, and production, in Turkmenistan. New Delhi is also prepared to host a meeting of technical experts to discuss the project, with the participation of the Asian Development Bank, which has declared its support.
Finally, the United Arab Emirates is entering the field of competition for Turkmenistan's gas. The UAE, whose sovereign wealth fund reportedly exceeds $300 billion, has been exploring for oil in Turkmenistan for a decade, using Dubai-based Dragon Oil as its vehicle. As such, it has an inside track to win exploration rights for offshore gas exploration blocks.
Moreover, as a 20% shareholder in the Austrian firm OMV, which leads the Nabucco project, the UAE is well placed to find easy export routes for any offshore gas that it finds. The German firm RWE, another Nabucco shareholder, has reportedly detected gas in the offshore block that it is exploring.
Thus one of the immutables of Caspian Sea energy development until recently is changing. Turkmenistan is no longer dependent upon Russia to take its gas but, even more important, it does not wish to be dependent upon China any more than it has been on Russia in the past. (See Gas pipeline gigantism, 17 July 2008).
Developments are pointing more and more towards the eventual success of Nabucco, and also even White Stream, which seeks to take gas under the Black Sea from Georgia to Romania (bypassing Turkey) and on to Europe, as sufficient supplies for both now become evident if one combines the Azerbaijani and the Turkmen offshore deposits.
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First published in Asia Times Online, 27 May 2010.