Last week, Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, gathered regional leaders in his marble capital ostensibly to mark Navruz, the Persian New Year. But he seemed more interested in talking gas and transportation deals than jumping over any fires, as Zoroastrian tradition instructs.
The biggest announcement to come out of the March 20-21 conclave – which included the presidents of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan – was a memorandum on building a yet-to-be-financed railway connecting Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The route would help Dushanbe overcome its enforced isolation by Uzbekistan.
For Berdymukhamedov, the construction of alternative gas export routes is a more pressing issue. Turkmenistan, which is believed to hold the world’s fourth largest gas reserves, will see new gas fields come into operation soon; the world’s second largest, Galkynysh (formerly South Yolotan) in the country’s south, near Afghanistan, is expected to start pumping in July, Berdymukhamedov announced this month. Auditor Gaffney, Cline & Associates has estimated Galkynysh’s reserves at between 13.1 trillion and 21.2 trillion cubic meters.
With such a giant about to start producing, Berdymukhamedov is casting about for new export routes. Turkmenistan is already supplying gas to Russia, China and Iran. Notably, Ashgabat and Beijing built a 1,800-kilometer pipeline to China via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which started working in late 2009.
Turkmenistan is now supplying about 20 billion cubic meters (bcm) a year to China, Reuters quoted Kakageldy Abdullayev, the head of the national gas company, TurkmenGaz, as saying earlier this month. Last year the two countries inked a deal to increase annual exports to up to 65 bcm. On March 27, Reuters quoted an unnamed Turkmen official as saying that Ashgabat plans to pump a total of 76.9 bcm this year and export 43.9 bcm.
Sales to Gazprom – which buys Turkmen gas to sell on to Europe (and takes a large cut) – have fallen sharply in recent years. The Russian gas export monopoly says its purchases of Turkmen gas fell from 42.3 bcm in 2008 to 10.7 bcm in 2010. An explosion in 2009 on the pipeline supplying Turkmen gas to Russia halted production for a time; it has never fully recovered and Turkmenistan has stepped up efforts to find alternatives, most notably with the pipeline to China. According to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Turkmenistan reduced its gas output from 66.1 bcm in 2008 to 42.4 bcm in 2010.
Over the past year, Turkmenistan has also pushed hard for a long-stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which the United States enthusiastically supports. This 1,700-kilometer route, estimated to cost $7.8 billion, would supply 33 bcm of Turkmen gas to the three countries each year – 14 bcm each to India and Pakistan and 5 bcm to Afghanistan. Washington sees the project as an alternative to the recently opened Iran-Pakistan pipeline. During his visit to Ashgabat, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari stressed the importance of Turkmenistan for meeting his country’s growing energy demands and offered transport corridors and access to seaports in exchange.
Despite its existing gas pipeline from Central Asia, some commentators have suggested Beijing fears TAPI could spoil its plans to vacuum up even more of the region’s energy resources. Last June, during meetings in Beijing, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his counterpart, then President Hu Jintao, discussed a new pipeline from northern Afghanistan, across Tajikistan, to China. State news agency Xinhua reported that the proposed pipeline could connect to Turkmenistan, near the Galkynysh field. China is already prospecting for gas in northern Afghanistan and has been pumping oil there since October.
No one should fear Turkmenistan hasn’t enough gas to go around, says Matthew Shaw, a Caspian energy analyst at Wood Mackenzie in the UK. “Turkmenistan has vast gas reserves to satisfy all proposed pipelines … enough for many decades,” Shaw told EurasiaNet.org.
The Afghanistan proposals, though, raise some practical problems. For one, any pipeline through the war-torn country – especially TAPI, which would cross the Taliban heartland in the south – would be dogged by security concerns. Almost as challenging is the high mountainous terrain of Tajikistan. Shaw questions the feasibility of laying pipe across Tajikistan if the country does not somehow contribute. Western companies exploring for gas in Tajikistan say they have made large finds, but have yet to prove they can get anything out of the ground.
A trans-Tajikistan pipeline “would be viable only if, and it is a big if, the discovery of gas deposits in Afghanistan and Tajikistan is confirmed and production starts there,” Shaw said, noting “it would still make sense for Tajikistan and Afghanistan to supply their gas to China through the existing gas pipeline [across Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan]. It is easier to expand existing pipelines than building a new one.”
Murat Sadykov is the pseudonym for a journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs.