Chevron Vice President Jay Pryor crept in and out of Turkmenistan like a thief in the night last week. Or he tried to anyway.
During talks with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, members of a visiting US delegation spoke glowingly about future cooperation in sectors including the fuel and energy industry, according to a state television news report on June 14.
All the reports in Turkmen state media were impenetrable and vague, as is customary, but Pryor’s presence among other things offered a clue about their intentions.
Chevron, along with ExxonMobil, has had offices in Turkmenistan for years with the meager hope of finally persuading Ashgabat to give them some access to the country’s onshore gas fields, but no cigar to date.
With almost mocking insouciance, Turkmenistan continues trying to tempt its foreign suitors to bid for the licensed Caspian Sea hydrocarbon blocks up for tender.
Chevron has resisted that temptation, but it is now being linked to the pipeline project to transport gas through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, known as TAPI.
People with historical knowledge of the Afghan pipeline will know that Chevron has some indirect experience with this project’s previous incarnation.
Unocal, which merged with Chevron in 2005, was the majority partner in a multinational consortium including Delta Oil Company of Saudi Arabia, Russia's Gazprom and Turkmenistan to build the pipeline in the 1990s. That idea was scuppered by the harsh realities of Afghan instability.
In a case of history repeating itself, the frontrunners in the proposed consortium to build TAPI reportedly include Chevron and Gazprom, as well as ExxonMobil. Other candidates cited in regional media include Indian state-owned gas processing and distribution company GAIL -- a detail just guaranteed to irk Pakistan.
For all Western companies may be eager to get their mitts on Turkmen goodies, visits from personages as illustrious as Pryor are infrequent. It is perhaps also worthy of note that he is only one of two people represented in the visiting US business delegation that state media saw fit to mention. The other was the executive director of the Turkmen-US Business Council, Eric Stewart.
Still, will Chevron be content to share the likely limited returns -- but substantial dangers -- of building a risk-fraught pipeline with its direct competitors? Or will Turkmenistan’s insistence of “mutually beneficial” cooperation eventually assure some scrap of comfort to the Americans?