The Caspian Economic Forum just took place in Turkmenistan’s Caspian resort area of Avaza on August 12, exactly one year to the day after the Convention On The Legal Status Of The Caspian Sea was signed at a summit of Caspian littoral state leaders in Aqtau, Kazakhstan.
The document signed in Aqtau was supposed to finally clarify for all five Caspian states -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- how the water and, more importantly, the seabed was to be used.
Use of the seabed included construction of undersea pipelines, such as the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), a project to bring natural gas from Turkmenistan to Europe that has been on the drawing board since the mid-1990s.
The topic of the TCP project to bring gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan was certain to receive attention at the Avaza forum. And it did. But not the sort of attention that would inspire much confidence that the TCP would be built anytime soon.
Plans for construction of a pipeline across the Caspian have been on the drawing board for about a quarter of a century and, for most of that time, Moscow and Tehran have demonstrated they were not going to support the project.
The Russian and Iranian representatives at Avaza made it clear their positions have not changed.
In his speech in Avaza, Behrouz Namdari of Iran’s National Gas Company said that “Iran is against any trans-Caspian pipelines.” Namdari suggested any party wishing to ship gas from the eastern side of the Caspian Sea to the western side would be better off shipping the gas through Iran’s pipeline network, neglecting to mention how that network is poorly developed and could not yet handle large volumes of gas.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was also in Avaza and said in his speech that he was “absolutely convinced that all major projects in the Caspian Sea should undergo a thorough and impartial environmental evaluation involving specialists from all Caspian countries.”
Sergei Prikhodko, the first deputy prime minister in Medvedev’s government, told journalists in Moscow just hours before the Caspian Economic Forum opened that the Convention On The Legal Status Of The Caspian Sea ensured the right “of each of the countries located on the Caspian Sea to take part in a comprehensive environmental assessment of cross-border maritime activities” that could affect the sea’s environment.
At the Caspian summit in Aqtau in 2018, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev both used their speeches to stress how important the ecology of the Caspian Sea was to their countries and pledged that both were committed to environmental safety when carrying out any projects.
But the remarks from Medvedev and similar remarks at Avaza from Namdari, indicate Russia and Iran continue to hold out ecological concerns as a means to delay construction of the TCP, a position Moscow and Tehran have used for some two decades to cast doubt on the realization of the TCP project.
There have always been suspicions that Russia and Iran were less interested in the Caspian’s ecology and more interested in supplying their own gas to Europe.
Namdari was perhaps more candid in remarks he made to the Russian publication Economika Segodnya, when he said, "We are not interested in creating competitors."
There was, however, also support for the TCP at Avaza.
The European Union’s special representative for Central Asia, Peter Burian, said at the forum that “I am happy to state that in 2019, [EU officials] have intensified our discussion with Turkmenistan on various aspects of our energy cooperation.”
The EU hopes to receive some 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas from the TCP as part of the Southern Gas Corridor initiative that aims to augment and diversify suppliers of gas to EU markets, at the same time lessening EU dependence on Russian gas.
The pro-Turkmen government website Orient.tm reported on August 13 that representatives of a group of European companies -- Edison Technologies, MMEC Mannesmann, Air Liquide Global E&C Solutions -- and the Chinese company Sinopec met with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and the presidential adviser on oil and gas matters, Yashigeldy Kakaev, to discuss construction of the TCP.
The same source reported the general director of Edison Technologies, Edison Kasapoglu, said, “We have united in a consortium, we can now realize such a bold project as a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan along the bottom of the Caspian Sea.”
Legally, there should never have been a problem for Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to agree on constructing a pipeline to bring Turkmen gas across the Caspian to Azerbaijan where it could be pumped into Azerbaijani pipelines headed to Europe.
The signing of last year's Caspian Convention supported this, noting that two littoral countries with a common border could agree to construct an undersea pipeline, seemingly clearing the way for construction of the TCP to connect Turkmenistan with Azerbaijan.
But problems appeared almost immediately.
Less than one week after the signing of the Caspian convention, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s ambassador at large, Igor Bratchikov, was already saying that the construction of the TCP would actually require the consent of all five Caspian littoral countries.
By the end of August 2018, Azerbaijani President Aliyev said if Turkmenistan was so interested in the TCP it should be willing to put up some money toward realizing the project, the same way the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) had provided financing for the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP).
TANAP, incidentally, would be the logical pipeline to carry the Turkmen gas on the last leg to Europe, though there is also the proposed White Stream gas pipeline that could bring Turkmen gas across the Black Sea from Georgia to Romania and Ukraine.
But Turkmenistan’s policy is to make its gas available at its border to anyone who connects a pipeline to Turkmenistan. With the exception of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline that Turkmengaz is managing, Turkmenistan does not construct pipelines past its border.
And Turkmenistan is in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the country’s nearly 28-year history as an independent state. It would be difficult for Ashgabat to find money for the TCP unless the government was prepared to tap into the reportedly large reserve fund it has in Germany and other foreign banks.
It is also worth considering the legitimacy of Russian and Iranian public concerns about environmental safety in the Caspian.
Moscow and Tehran say they are worried about possible ecological damage caused by undersea pipelines. But there already are undersea pipelines in the Caspian Sea that run from Caspian oil and gas fields to both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
In fact the twin pipelines -- one for oil and the other for gas -- from Kazakhstan’s offshore Kashagan field started leaking due to the effects of sulfur gas on the pipes in September 2013, shortly after production finally started at the field and both pipelines had to be replaced at a cost of some $4 billion.
Russia and Iran have never complained about the pipelines running from the Shah Deniz 2 field some 85 kilometers to the Azerbaijani shore, or from the Kashagan field some 95 kilometers to Kazakhstan’s shore.
They also have never complained about the damage that resulted from Kazakhstan’s leaking pipelines in 2013.
It is apparently only the pipelines that connect two Caspian countries, in this case Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, that elicit objections from Moscow and Tehran.
It will be interesting to see what happens if Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan move on a decade-old plan to construct an undersea oil pipeline to bring Kazakh oil to Azerbaijan, where it would be loaded into pipelines heading west toward Europe.
Further, Russia has constructed gas pipelines -- Blue Stream and TurkStream pipelines -- from its shores across the bottom of the Black Sea to Turkey, and Russia built Nord Stream 1 and is working on Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines along the bottom of the Gulf of Finland and Baltic Sea to Germany. All these pipelines are technically more difficult to construct than the proposed TCP.
So Russian experts should already know that the TCP poses no greater ecological risk than Blue Stream, TurkStream, or the Nord Stream pipelines do.
Namdari’s comments about not creating a competitor for gas markets -- in this case the particularly lucrative European gas market -- seem more likely to be the reason for Russian and Iranian objections to construction of the TCP.
But the loophole the two governments see in having all five Caspian countries agree on the ecological safety of cross-border projects promises to delay construction of the TCP from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan for the foreseeable future.
There are some people in the West who say if leading technical and ecological experts, say from the EU or the United States, are involved in planning and constructing the TCP, and Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are satisfied with safety guarantees, there should be no problem building the pipeline and no place for Russian or Iranian objections.
But Moscow and Tehran’s interpretation of the Convention On The Legal Status Of The Caspian Sea requires that Russia and Iran sign off on ecological safety studies before construction of transborder pipelines can start.
If, for example, Russia claims its experts are in no way inferior to Western experts, and that Russia has studied the Caspian biosphere for longer and in greater detail than Western experts, which would be difficult to argue, then it becomes a matter of who polices the Caspian Sea.
The answer to that is clear: the Russian Navy controls the Caspian and if Moscow does not want something constructed in the Caspian, ultimately there is no one in any position to oppose that.