The United States and Turkish governments on the one side and the British-Dutch Shell Company on the other side have simultaneously presented Turkmenistan with rival plans for gas export pipelines.
President Saparmurat Niazov conferred in Ashgabat with Turkish Energy Minister Cumhur Ersumer on October 20 and with U.S. Commerce Department official Jan Kalicki, one of Washington’s top policymakers on Caspian issues, on October 22. Niazov and Ersumer initialed a protocol of intent to lay a trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmen gas fields to Azerbaijan and from there via Georgia to Turkey. The Enron company is completing the project feasibility study under a U.S. government grant. Turkey’s state pipeline company Botas is expected to play a major role in the project. The line would pump 30 billion cubic meters annually–of which Turkey guarantees to purchase 15 billion and to transit the remaining 15 billion to East European countries.
Niazov and Turkish President Suleiman Demirel may sign the framework agreement as early as next week in Ankara at a planned summit of the producer and transit countries in Ankara. This gas pipeline forms part of the planned oil and gas transport corridor from the eastern shore of the Caspian to Turkey. The concept of parallel oil and gas pipelines and of aggregating export volumes from several countries is key to the commercial profitability of the project. The U.S., Turkish, Azerbaijani and Georgian governments support this plan–against growing reservations on the part of oil companies.
On October 22, Shell presented a draft feasibility study of its own project to Niazov. Shell’s pipeline would pump the same annual volume of 30 billion cubic meters to Turkey, and that gas would also be divided equally between Turkey and East European customer countries. The crucial difference is that Shell’s pipeline would reach Turkey via Iran. Shell maintains that its project is more cost effective and less complex technically, and that the route is safer (International agencies, October 21 and 22).
The United States strongly opposes any route via Iran, and not only for political and security reasons. Iran is inherently a competitor to South Caucasus and Central Asian countries in terms of oil and gas exports. Those countries and their potential customers would face the risk of an Iranian cutoff or manipulation of access.
Niazov–like his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev–is hard pressed for immediate solutions. Physically separated by Russia and Iran from their potential markets, and desperate to develop their resources, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan seem willing to approve the first export route to materialize, which includes Russian and Iranian ones.–VS
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