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Turkmenistan Gas Gets Washington's Attention

Turkmen gas: a cause for celebration
Turkmen gas: a cause for celebration
In May the British energy consulting firm Gaffney, Cline and Associates made an announcement that generated a lot of attention in the oil and gas business – and beyond. Turkmenistan, the company concluded, has some 20 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in its Yoloten fields. That would give the Central Asian republic the world’s second-largest reserves, behind only Iran.

That’s big news for investors in Turkmenistan’s energy market as well as for gas-hungry Europeans, who are desperately in need of alternative energy sources to ease their dependency on Russian gas and have been knocking on the doors of Turkmenistan for some time to get it.

Though the U.S. is not a direct beneficiary of the find, since it gets much of its energy from the Americas or the Persian Gulf, Washington appears to be excited about the find – so much so, in fact, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special envoy on Eurasian Energy, Ambassador Richard L. Morningstar, paid a visit to the Turkmen capital in the second week of June, soon after Gaffney Cline’s announcement.

According to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat, Ambassador Morningstar’s agenda included meetings with the top Turkmen leadership, including President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. It's safe to say that energy was the key topic on the agenda.

It’s still unclear Morningstar's visit was pre-planned or scheduled only after the gas field announcement. Nor do we know much about the specifics of his discussion with the Turkmen leadership. Both the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat and Morningstar’s own office at the State Department are mum about the details of his visit.

That coyness is tantalizing. Analysts say that even if some of the gas recently discovered in Turkmenistan could be brought to Europe, it would offer a serious alternative to Russia’s near-monopoly on European energy supplies. Helping Europe to diversify its energy imports has been one of the key elements of American foreign policy in the region.

For years the U.S. and its allies have been pushing for the construction of a pipeline be built under the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. The Trans-Caspian pipeline would bring Turkmen gas from there to Europe without crossing Russian territory. Needless to say, the Russians are not keen on the project. And making it a reality would also require Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to overcome their differences about the pipeline. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon.

The sensitivity of the interests involved may provide a clue about why the Americans are so reluctant to talk about the specifics of Morningstar's discussion with the Turkmens.

The Russian position has been clear on this subject for a long time. Just in case anybody in Washington had doubts, the Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Vladimir Dorokhin, repeated Moscow’s opposition to the project as Morningstar was preparing for his visit to Turkmenistan.

Speaking to the press in Baku on June 8, the ambassador said, “Russia, as a Caspian country, is against the laying of pipelines and gas lines along the bed of this unique body of water, which could harm the ecological state of the Caspian Sea.”
Referring to the draft convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, he added that “any project like this would require consensus among neighboring states of the Caspian Sea. Russia and Iran certainly oppose such a project which could have a negative impact on its ecology.”

Both sides may deny it, but at this point Russia and the United States could well be on a collision course over the Trans-Caspian pipeline, since the discovery of new gas fields in Turkmenistan has dramatically raised the stakes.

- Muhammad Tahir