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Turkmen Energy Cooperation With U.S. Could Accelerate

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov personally gave his foreign minister instructions ahead of the Washington trip.
Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov is concluding a four-day trip to the United States during which he has met with senior U.S. officials and was expected to see U.S. oil- and gas-company representatives in an effort to spark investment interest in his country.

While officials have generally offered few details, special U.S. envoy for Eurasian energy Ambassador Richard Morningstar, who recently returned from Ashgabat, noted that energy-development issues are a "high priority" for the new administration of President Barack Obama.

Morningstar told journalists at a briefing in Washington this week that "Turkmenistan is an interesting country and raises some interesting opportunities."

He described "flexibility on the part of Turkmenistan with respect to doing more on onshore production with Western companies in a way that would be satisfactory both to the government of Turkmenistan and to [oil and gas] companies."

Fresh Impetus

With tensions ebbing and flowing between Ashgabat and Moscow, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has shown increased interest in attracting the participation of Western companies, and particularly U.S. firms, in the development of gas fields in Turkmenistan.

It was reported that he personally instructed Meredov prior to his U.S. trip, which was expected to include meetings with ExxonMobil and Chevron executives.

Earlier this month, Meredov visited Brussels for talks on increased cooperation on energy issues between the European Union and Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan and the United States have no bilateral investment agreement. Negotiations have been on-and-off since 1991 but were suspended in 1994 by the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Some analysts see in the current visit by minister Meredov an attempt by the new president to revive and expand energy cooperation with the United States.

Balancing Acts

Turkmenistan has drifted lately in its energy policy away from Russia, toward the European Union. The increased interest now in a greater participation of American energy companies seems to sit naturally with Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan has long sought to avoid the appearance of favoring one group of potential investors over another, making use of its energy as leverage.

The Nabucco gas-pipeline project is seen as crucial for Turkmenistan to be able to deliver gas to Western Europe and Turkey without being so dependent on the Russian gas delivery system. Turkmenistan is expected to provide up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas through Nabucco once the project is completed in 2013.

There are currently friction points between Turkey and Azerbaijan, two of the major players in the Nabucco project. They concern the amount of gas that Turkey will be able to take for its domestic consumption and whether at the same time the gas demands of Western Europe will be satisfied.

Azerbaijan is expected to provide up to 8 billion cubic meters of gas from its Shah Deniz field with a possibility for further expansion.

Morningstar said that the "8 billion" figure should be taken as a starting point -- any less than that would mean that tensions between Turkey and other participants will continue.

"Once that is established and Nabucco is sanctioned, it is going to make more likely westward gas coming from Turkmenistan," Morningstar said. "It may make a difference in ultimately opening up northern Iraq and there's a lot of potential for Azerbaijan, for even the Azerbaijani government thinks that at Shah Deniz and in other sites that there may be more gas.”

Regarding the discord between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, another oil-rich country in the Caspian region, over the Kepez field in the Caspian Sea, Morningstar said an acceptable solution could be a political-business agreement between the countries without discussing the border issue.

“There are possibilities that have been proposed with respect to getting gas across the Caspian, and the relationship between Azerbaijan's President Aliev and Turkmenistan's President Berdymukhammedov has been growing and is positive," Morningstar said.

He declined to say whether human rights issues were discussed during meetings in Washington with Minister Meredov.