Turkmenistan has long boasted that it has some of the largest natural-gas reserves in the world. But no one was sure of this because only Turkmen specialists had ever checked to determine exactly how much gas the country really has.
But that began to change earlier this year when the Turkmen government hired the British firm Gaffney, Cline, and Associates (GCA) to survey some of the country's gas fields. The news was better than anyone could have imagined.
On October 13, GCA manager Jim Gillet announced that the results of an audit from one field, the South Yolotan-Osman field in southeastern Turkmenistan, indicated that the "best estimate is five times larger than Dauletabad, which makes Yolotan-Osman approximately the fourth- or fifth-largest gas field in the world."
The Dauletabad gas field was previously believed to be the largest gas field in Turkmenistan with some 1.4 trillion cubic meters. Most of Turkmenistan's agreements with partners to date have been based on Dauletabad being the major contributor to gas pipelines.
The new findings drastically change the situation -- but by how much? That depends, of course, on how much gas is in the Yolotan field. Gillet, calling Yolotan a "world-class field," said there is an incredibly huge amount of gas there.
"Based on our current understanding, Gaffney/Cline believes that the Yolotan field has a low estimate of 4 trillion cubic meters, a best estimate of 6 trillion cubic meters, and a high estimate of 14 trillion cubic meters," Gillet said.
To put that in perspective, the country with the largest proven natural-gas reserves is Russia, with some 48 trillion cubic meters, followed by Iran's 26 trillion cubic meters. European Union countries consume some 300 billion cubic meters annually.
While Turkmenistan's Yolotan field probably does not have 14 trillion cubic meters it is only one of many gas fields in Turkmenistan.
Meeting Its Commitments
Gillet said work that is still in progress would soon more precisely clarify the amount of gas in Yolotan. But he said one thing is for sure: "Given the above huge gas volumes, it is now clear that whatever the results of any final clarification, I can confirm that there is more than sufficient gas to fulfill Turkmenistan's existing contract commitments."
Charles Esser, energy analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says the preliminary figures for Yolotan ensure Turkmenistan is able to supply its contracted customers, and maybe others, with gas.
"The overall significance is that it would seem there is enough gas for Turkmenistan if there were proper development to be able to supply Russia at current or somewhat larger rates, and supply Iran, China, and perhaps the West, as well, through a pipeline across the Caspian [Sea]," Esser says.
Turkmenistan currently has contracts to supply Russia with some 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually, China with 40 bcm, and Iran with 8 bcm. The European Union has shown great interest in Caspian Basin energy resources and has backed the Nabucco pipeline project and the White Stream pipeline project. Both of those pipelines propose to carry more than 30 bcm of natural gas to Europe annually, but there have been doubts that either was possible without the inclusion of other countries, including Iran, in the projects.
Turkmenistan's government said last week it wants to increase gas exports to 125 bcm annually by 2015 and it now appears there is enough gas to meet that target. But Esser cautions that Yolotan's gas is still in the ground and much work needs to be done before it reaches markets.
"Is the government able to divide things up properly between Russia, Western, and Chinese interests in getting out exports? Is the government even able to technically handle the huge administrative task -- and somewhat technical task -- of supervising all of these foreign investors?" Esser asks. "I think Turkmenistan has a very limited capability internally to just handle that aspect, let alone to increase production, which would require the bringing in of foreign expertise."
The audit results from GCA are good news for Turkmenistan, its present customers, and those who plan to import Turkmen gas. But there is a concern that, in the rush to secure gas from this "world-class" field and other fields after the audit results are revealed, rights concerns will fall by the wayside.
Turkmenistan has been accused of grave and routine infringement of human rights, and international groups have appealed to Western governments to pressure the Central Asian country into making fundamental democratic reforms. But it has become clear this year that the need for energy supplies has pushed rights concerns to the background in discussions with the Turkmen government.
The European Union for one seems determined to secure energy resources even if it means temporarily turning a blind eye to the rights situation in Turkmenistan. Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch says human rights are "a fundamental value on which the EU's relationships are supposed to be based around the world." She says that "when entities like the EU stop pursuing human rights because of a strategic interest then I think that really undercuts and kind of discredits the whole pursuit of human rights."
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazlieva and correspondent Guvanch Geraev contributed to this report