Turkmen leader calls for energy route security

Oct 25, 2008 02:00 AM

A proposal by Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov for international coordination to protect oil and gas exports is unlikely to be translated into action because of competing superpower interests. Berdymukhamedov's proposal was put forward at a United Nations General Assembly meeting in late September by his foreign minister, Rashid Meredov.
"Secure protection for energy infrastructure means reducing vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters, to risks created by changes in the military and political situation, to the threat of international terrorism, and to the unauthorised removal of fuel during transit," said Meredov.

Turkmenistan is a leading producer of natural gas, exporting 60 bn cm a year, with plans to increase this volume. Current international estimates put the country's proven reserves at 2.86 tcm.
In 2007, the newly-elected Berdymukhamedov announced a new energy policy described as "multi-vector", which envisages that Turkmenistan will export its oil and gas toany country it chooses. Officials then began active negotiations with potential buyers and set new prices reflecting the world market rate.

Turkmenistan's export options are limited by pipeline geography -- at the moment, it has to rely almost entirely on a Soviet-era network of routes running to Russia via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Moscow is doing all it can to maintain its influence over Ashgabat and prevent it getting involved in projects for alternative export routes. For instance, it objects to plans for a Transcaspian Gas Pipeline, which are the United States and the European Union are lobbying for, and also to a project to lay a pipeline carrying 30 bn cm to China a year.
Turkmenistan's export options are also constrained by security issues in Afghanistan, which are holding up a project to lay a pipeline through that country to Pakistan.

Experts say Berdymukhamedov is right about the need for shared security arrangements for energy, given the range of threats to pipelines -- terrorist attack, military operations, and the lack of political and economic guarantees provided by transit countries. However, they note numerous obstacles to making it happen because it would require coordination among energy producers and consumers, something which does not look feasible in the current geopolitical environment.
A commentator in the Dashoguz region of northern Turkmenistan says that whenever the political situation changes in any of the countries that are part of an international pipeline network, it has a direct impact on the supply chain. He recalls the situation in 2002, when the Turkmen-Uzbek political relationship was frosty and as a result, Tashkent obstructed the transit of Turkmen gas by various means.

A more recent example is the Russian-Georgian war over South Ossetia, which disrupted oil supplies along the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. In addition, Moscow frequently uses energy supply issues to gain leverage in its political disagreements with Ukraine. He believes Turkmenistan could experience similar problems with routes to Iran, China and Afghanistan.
"As long as there is a confrontation between superpowers that actively lobby for certain projects and block other ones, it isn't going to be feasible to set up a common energy security system," he added.

Rovshan Ibrahimov, who heads the international relations department at Qafqaz University in Baku, Azerbaijan, said such a plan would require exporters and consumers to make concessions, for example by delegating security to the United Nations or some other international agency that would provide coordination. But he warns that "some countries might see this as a violation of their sovereignty, while others would regard it as a way of pressuring regional leaders".
In Ibrahimov's view, plans for a common security system are likely to remain a mere ambition, a topic for discussion in international forums, for the foreseeable future.

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