Hydrocarbons are a key to Russia’s effort to re-establish influence in the former Soviet republics and to local and Western efforts to keep Russia out. In Turkmenistan, a country of desert nomads north of Iran, south of Uzbekistan, west of Afghanistan and east of the Caspian Sea, vast deposits of natural gas have no outlets except those controlled by Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly. When Turkmen authorities refused to sell it gas below the cost of production, Gazprom choked off Turkmen access to other customers. Between 1991 and 1998, Turkmen production fell by 85 percent. No wonder that finding alternate routes to market is the main goal and purpose of Turkmen diplomacy.
And of U.S. diplomacy as well. America’s Great Gamesman and special envoy for Caspian energy, Richard Morningstar, was in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat two weeks ago for the signing of an agreement on the construction of a pipeline that meets America’s three requirements: not through Afghanistan, not through Iran, and not through Russia. The agreement authorizes PSG, a consortium of U.S. construction and engineering firm Bechtel and GE Capital, the financial arm of General Electric, to build a $2.5 billion pipeline from eastern Turkmenistan to the Caspian Sea, across the sea to Azerbaijan, and across Azerbaijan and Georgia to Erzurum in eastern Turkey.
A magnificent idea, but maybe a dud. A contract without financing is a meal without wine, or food either, and the money to carry out this pharaonic scheme has not been found. When lenders look at the low price of oil, the political turmoil in the region and the legal questions about who controls the Caspian seabed, they may decide that diligence due is diligence don’t. The gas has been there for millions of years; it may stay put for a few more generations.