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Turkmenistan: Environmentalists Concerned About Oil, Gas Development

Can Turkmenistan avoid the environmental mistakes made by other Caspian countries in exploiting the region's oil and gas reserves? ( September 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan was among the most isolated countries in the world when it was ruled by President Saparmurat Niyazov. But since Niyazov's death in December 2006 and the rise to power of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan appears to have become more open to foreign investment.

Kate Watters, executive director of the Virginia-based nongovernmental environmental organization Crude Accountability, tells RFE/RL that Western energy companies and governments are eager to seize on Ashgabat's opening up to the world.

"Turkmenistan is the last frontier for hydrocarbon investment in the Caspian region," she says. "The other Caspian countries -- particularly Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan -- have really been the focus of a lot of targeted Western oil and gas investment not only by the major international oil companies but also by the international finance institutions that provide financing to those companies."

Last week alone, at least two Western governmental delegations -- from Britain and Austria -- visited Turkmenistan for talks on cooperation in the oil and gas industry.

'Broaden And Invigorate'

Berdymukhammedov is wrapping up a five-day visit to the United States. He met on September 25 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and addressed the UN General Assembly in New York on September 26. The U.S. State Department said Rice and Berdymukhammedov discussed energy opportunities, among other topics, while the Turkmen leader told the UN that Ashgabat intends to "broaden" and "invigorate" its cooperation with other states in the areas of energy, culture, transportation, and economy.

"We think it should be...clear what sort of investments are being made and also what environmental and social protections need to be put in place to secure the environment and the health of the people living around the investment areas." -- Kate Watters, Crude Accountability

Berdymukhammedov was also quoted on September 24 as saying, "Turkmenistan gives primary importance to developing relations with the United States, particularly in oil and gas." A Turkmen delegation also discussed U.S. participation in Turkmenistan's oil and natural-gas development and export with U.S. business leaders.

In a report released September 12, Crude Accountability listed lessons that could be learned from the massive investment made in other areas of the Caspian. Watters says these investments often were made to the detriment of local communities, particularly in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

"If we look at the north Caspian, where the Kashagan, the Karachaganak, or [the] Tengiz [fields were] developed, there's been very serious environmental violations, excess emissions into the atmosphere of toxins," Watters says. "Communities around some of these oil fields are suffering environmental health problems. There are communities where as many as half of the residents are chronically ill from exposure to toxins. And this is where Western corporations are operating."

Birds, Mammals, Fish Endangered

Watters says energy development is also threatening already endangered species of fish such as the Beluga, Stellate, and Russian sturgeon, the kilka (Caspian sprat), as well as the Caspian seal. In Turkmenistan, Watters says energy development is causing particular risk to the Krasovodsk Nature Reserve, home to hundreds of thousands of birds and more than 40 mammal species.

The report calls on companies to avoid undertaking exploration, extraction, and the transport of hydrocarbons in protected areas. It also says the terms of production-sharing agreements between energy companies and host governments in the Caspian region should be made public.

"Currently production-sharing agreements are not open documents," she says. "And we think it should be so that it's clear what sort of investments are being made and also what environmental and social protections need to be put in place to secure the environment and the health of the people living around the investment areas."

Aylkhan Artyqbaev from the Kazakh nongovernmental organization For National Ecology tells RFE/RL that authorities should better control the energy companies' work.

"There is no thorough control on behalf of the state, which leads to extraordinary situations," says Artyqbaev. "I think this is the main reason for the [ecological] problems the region is facing."

Avoid Mistakes

Telman Zeynalov is the president of the National Ecological Forecasting Center, an Azerbaijani NGO. He hopes a strong civil society will allow Turkmenistan to avoid the mistakes made in his country.

"There is a huge difference between the former and current president of Turkmenistan," Zeynalov says. "I don't know enough about [the government's] current ecological policy, but it would be good if they create good conditions for the development of civil society in Turkmenistan in order to monitor the ecological situation. In Azerbaijan, we haven't achieved this yet."

According to Crude Accountability, very few NGOs exist in Turkmenistan due to the country's "highly repressive" political system.

(Rovshan Gambarov, from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, and Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)

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