Turkmen gas discovery could have dramatic impact on the energy map

Nov 10, 2006 01:00 AM

by Roman Kupchinsky

Turkmenistan's discovery of a "super-giant" natural-gas field with reserves of 7 tcm could significantly alter the energy playing field if confirmed. Such a massive new source of gas could cause Western Europe and Russia to rethink their current strategies for ensuring gas deliveries, and threaten some highly touted projects.
During his visit to Ashgabat earlier this month, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was asked by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov if Germany, along with Russia, would be interested in participating in the construction of a new natural-gas pipeline to Europe.

Turkmenistan, Niyazov told his guest, had discovered a super-giant gas field, South Iolotansk, that he claimed has proven reserves of 7 tcm of gas, twice that of Russia's Shtokman field.
Steinmeier was cautious in his response to Niyazov's offer, saying Germany is always interested in obtaining secure gas supplies.

Pipe dream
If Niyazov's dream were to be fully realized, his country would add to its export capabilities to the tune of 40 bn cm per year. The trans-Caspian route would also serve as an alternative (or complementary) route to the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which is supported by the United States and the EU and opposed by Russia.
Despite the Turkmen president's enthusiasm for the project, Gazprom executives were cautious. On November 7, Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov admitted that the Russian gas giant's leadership was already aware of the proposal, but it would take until the end of the year to study it. Ryazanov told that the Iolotansk field would require additional investment due to the high sulphur content of its gas, and that Gazprom had some doubts about the size of the field's reserves.

Ryazanov's sceptical attitude can be traced to previous exaggerated claims by the Turkmen leadership about the size of its gas reserves and its reluctance to release the results of an audit of these reserves conducted by Western experts.
Most Western energy-monitoring organizations agree with the June 2006 BP "Statistical Review of World Energy," which estimates that Turkmenistan has 2.9 tcm of gas reserves. If the Iolotansk field does, in fact, contain 7 tcm, this would have a dramatic impact on the energy map of Central Asia, Europe, and Russia.

Altered playing field
The European Union, for one, would be more than pleased to receive substantial quantities of Turkmen gas via a pipeline that avoids Russian territory. And Russia, according to one scenario prepared by Gazprom's Research Institute for the Economics of the Gas Industry (NIIGazekonomika), might be amenable to such an arrangement in order to buy time for Gazprom to develop new fields to supplement its rapidly depleting reserves.
Another factor is the controversy surrounding the Nord Stream pipeline meant to transport gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany. Nord Stream was designed to become operational in 2010 with an initial transport capacity of some 27.5 bn cmper year. In the second phase, a parallel pipeline is to increase its capacity to about 55 bn cm.

During the initial phase, the plan was for Nord Stream to be filled with gas from Russia's Yamal Peninsula, but the main supply source would eventually become the gigantic Shtokman field in the Barents Sea. However, following Gazprom's announcement that it would develop the Shtokman field without the participation of Western companies, some experts have expressed scepticism that Gazprom is prepared to take on such a complex project by itself.
To make matters worse, unofficial reports that Sweden might be unwilling to allow the Nord Stream pipeline to be built in its economic zone could pose another potential roadblock to Western participation in developing Shtokman.

Fool's gold?
There is always the possibility that Niyazov is exaggerating his country's gas reserves and manipulating Russian and EU expectations of his country's ability to supply gas as a means of remaining in power. But if the Iolotansk field does indeed contain anywhere near 7 tcm of gas -- high sulphur content or not -- Gazprom would likely be constrained to drop its reservations and help make the Turkmen president's pipeline vision a reality. Such a move could further serve to threaten the ambitious, but divisive, Nord Stream project.
Russia's main concern would be to ensure it can fulfil its European contracts. With the Central Asian "Centre" pipeline, the traditional route for Turkmen gas to Russia, running at nearly full capacity, Gazprom might find that getting in on Niyazov's project would be the best means of ensuring supplies.

Source: RFE/RL
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