Friday, 4 March 2011

Turkmenistan pushes for Trans-Caspian Pipeline despite border uncertainty

Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov
Turkmenistan has made another step to promote a pipeline across the bed of the Caspian Sea, this time at an environmental conference in the capital Ashgabat on 28th February.

The event, entitled "Environmental Aspects of Trans-Caspian Pipelines" was attended by 300 representatives from twenty countries. Concrete information, as usual in the reclusive state, is hard to come by but representatives of Chevron, Statoil, Dragon Oil, and OMV were all apparently present.

Official Turkmen websites said that the conference focused on President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov's desire to raise interest in the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), which would carry gas from Central Asia to Azerbaijan. One website stated that the event would assist in the “search for specific ways and solutions to this critical issue [ i.e. building a TCP] that will let us approach the common goal to turn the Caspian region into a region of peace and wellbeing.”

Russia and Iran staunchly oppose the construction of a TCP. Ostensibly their concerns are legal and environmental: that the status of the Caspian has not yet been settled between all five littoral states (particularly regarding whether the Caspian is a sea or a lake), and that – absent such a legal framework – any subsea hydrocarbon projects must be agreed upon by all five littorals. This is disingenuous, ignoring the extensive oil and gas extraction which all five states currently undertake near their coastlines and which is certainly capable of creating a Caspian-wide ecological disaster.

The real reason is political and commercial: neither Moscow nor Tehran want additional pipelines to emerge which could transport Central Asian energy to world markets without crossing Russian or Iranian territory. This position was reiterated by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a Caspian heads-of-state summit in Baku during November. However on that occasion President Berdimuhamedov offered a defiant note, insisting that only the two participating states – Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan – had to agree on a project. Azerbaijan has repeatedly agreed to the idea in principle, and reiterated that position at the environmental conference.

Caspian Sea map
Having apparently addressed the legal challenges in Baku, the Turkmen leader has now sought to address the environmental challenges in Ashgabat. The vague statements that emerged from the conference emphasise the need for the highest environmental standards to be adhered to in any subsea engineering project, and that – thanks to the experience of international companies represented at the forum – these standards could certainly be applied in the Caspian. Interestingly, no Russian or Iranian companies were publicly stated as having attended the conference.

This implies that Turkmenistan is more serious about committing to a TCP than often assumed. Disputes with Azerbaijan over ownership of certain fields, Russo-Iranian opposition and China's efforts to secure Turkmen gas, not to mention Turkmenistan's opaque decision-making, were all seen as major obstacles. President Berdimuhamedov's increasingly proactive and independent foreign policy seems to be changing all that.


For more information, see the Menas Borders website, here.

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