PRAGUE, 14 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan are today holding talks in Turkmenistan about the prospects of starting a long-delayed pipeline project that would export Turkmen natural gas to the energy-hungry markets of South Asia.
The project has been in the works for many years and its strategic significance for Turkmenistan is undoubted, as the pipeline would be able to export gas to new, important markets without crossing the Russian border, freeing it from potential political interference from Moscow.
In 2002, when they signed off on the $3.5 billion pipeline, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf called the project "vital" to their countries. Though not one of the original partners in the project, India too is interested and its oil and gas minister, Dinsha Patel, is leading a large delegation of observers at the Ashgabat gathering. Reports from New Delhi suggest Patel will be seeking to gain a clearer picture of the technical, commercial, and legal frameworks for the project, which would deliver gas to India through an extension of the main pipeline to Pakistan.
A Long-Blocked Pipeline
Yet, for all the interest, the project has yet to get off the ground.
"This project is written on paper," says the Pakistani political and defense consultant Hasan-Askari Rizvi, but "there's nothing beyond that."
The stumbling block is the security situation in Afghanistan, Rizvi says.
The idea of a pipeline was shelved in the 1990s, when the radical Taliban militia gained power in Afghanistan, and security has remained poor since their fall in 2001, with the Karzai government failing to gain effective control over large swathes of the country.
"Had Afghanistan been stable, this project would have started, because it was discussed years ago, but [instead] it has remained on the table," Rizvi says.
Despite such obstacles, Turkmenistan's oil and gas minister, Gurbanmurat Ataev, reiterated on 14 February that his country considers the pipeline a priority export route. He cited the proximity and rapid growth of the South Asian market as key attractions.
Huge Reserves Have Not Brought Wealth
Two possible routes are on the table. A southern route would pass through territory still contested by Taliban remnants and the insurgents, then through Baluchistan in Pakistan, and on to India. The second, northern route would have a shorter Afghan leg.
India has tended to favor a different project, one that would deliver Iranian natural gas directly to Pakistan without passing through Afghanistan.
The United States favors the Turkmen pipeline over the Iran pipeline, as it does not want to see the region relying on Iran for some of its energy needs.
The Ashgabat meeting continues into 15 February. Officials were taken on 13 February on a sightseeing tour of the gas field at Dauletabad, whose vast reserves should ensure that Turkmenistan will remain the biggest natural gas producer in the former Soviet Union, after Russia.
The landlocked Central Asian state has the fourth-largest gas reserves of any country in the world. However, large hydrocarbon revenues have not brought to Turkmenistan the prosperity that one might expect, and it remains one of the world's poorest countries.
Click on the map for an enlarged image.
Russia's rising appetite for Central Asian gas is a direct result of the shifting fortunes of Gazprom, the state-run Russian company that controls lucrative exports. The company's total gas production has flatlined at around 550 billion cubic meters (bcm) a year. With major fields yielding less as they age, Gazprom has chosen to maintain its all-important gas balance by purchasing gas on the side -- from independent producers in Russia and from Russia's Central Asian neighbors -- instead of investing in the lengthy and costly development of untapped Arctic fields...(more)