Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, Ambassador Richard L. Morningstar, August 2010
Russia and the United States would seem to be on a collision course of sorts over the Trans-Caspian pipeline -- but both deny it, and Turkmenistan has no comment. The Trans-Caspian is to be built under the sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan -- once they resolve their border differences -- and then connect to Europe. The pipeline is pivotal not only to Turkmenistan's plans to diversify energy corridors, but also those of the European Union.
The state media has the usual boilerplate about "mutually advantageous cooperation" and the US Embassy website is even more terse, but a clue to the current agenda could be seen from recent speech from Daniel D. Stein, Senior Advisor in Morningstar's office. Speaking at the Turkmen Oil and Gas Conference in the Avaza resort on May 26, Stein invoked the new discoveries in accessing shale gas, the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima, and the downturn in the global economy as all factors impacting the world gas and oil markets.
While it is unlikely that Caspian gas will reach US markets directly, its development helps increase the world supply. A key element of US foreign policy is helping Europe attain energy security to keep Europe economically strong, and that means helping Turkmenistan find new routes to market for its hydrocarbons, said Stein. Thus for geopolitical reasons as much as actual energy needs, the US wants to be part of the Caspian projects:
In line with this approach, the Obama Administration has worked to support the establishment of a new pathway, the so-called Southern Corridor, to bring natural gas to Europe through Turkey, from the Caspian and potentially other sources, including Iraq. Gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz offshore field will likely be the first significant volumes available to supply the Southern Corridor. Three separate pipeline consortia -- the Nabucco, ITGI and TAP groups – are now competing for the right to ship Shah Deniz gas. In light of the momentum achieved over the past 18 months, we are confident that a commercially viable Southern Corridor will be realized.
Regarding additional gas supplies for the Southern Corridor, we have noted with interest that President Berdimuhamedov has talked positively about providing gas to Europe through a Trans-Caspian Pipeline as part of Turkmenistan’s efforts to diversify its export routes. While the ultimate decision is of course up to the Government of Turkmenistan, we would welcome Turkmenistan’s participation in the Southern Corridor.
Stein also applauds the Turkmen initiative with the Turkmen-India-Pakistan-Afghanistan (TAPI) pipeline and expresses hope that US companies could participate. He is mindful that these foreign policy and energy goals put the US at cross purposes with Russia:
Some people have portrayed our energy policy and Russia’s as a zero sum game. We reject this analysis. Energy security and energy investment are topics for serious two-way discussions with Russia. In this spirit, in July 2009, the White House launched a bi-national presidential commission with Russia covering a host of issues, including energy... In this forum, we have had productive discussion on many issues, including world market energy trends, proposed projects to bring new oil and gas to market and bilateral investment in Russian and U.S. energy markets.
But discussions in a bilateral commission are one thing -- actual competition in the region are another. Russia doesn't see these developments in the same way, according to an editorial on the Turkmen exiles' site gundogar.org. While Morningstar was saying that Washington would welcome any pipelines that would bring Caspian gas to Europe, Russia was suddenly getting religion about the environmental impact of pipelines -- something it is very selective about doing elsewhere.
At a press conference in Baku June 8, Ambassador Vladimir Dorokhin, Russia's envoy to Baku, 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," regnum.ru quoted him as saying.
The Russian diplomat invoked an article in the Caspian Sea convention regarding the construction of trans-Caspian pipelines, and noted that both Russia and Iran believe the environmental issues have to be agreed upon by all five littoral states. But Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan believe that only countries directly involved on pipelines on their immediate territories should decide these matters.
Meanwhile Vitaly Beylyarbekov, vice president of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), said that talks on the building of the Trans-Caspian pipeline will take place without Russia, gundogar.org reported, citing RIA Novosti. He believes Russia will not hinder such talks but that the parties are not going to negotiate the pipeline with Russia. Even so, he didn't see this as leading to any confrontation, and added that an environmental impact study would need to be done, along with a technical and economic feasibility study, without which a decision would not be made.
In March, Austria's OMV, a member of the Nabucco pipeline consortium, said that undersea pipelines are more safe than above-ground pipelines. Ambassador Matthew Bryza, US envoy in Baku, also said this week that talk of an environmental threat is "illogical." He also commented that the US would help Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan protect their energy resources from "developments posing potential unforeseen risks" but did not elaborate, arminfo reported June 13.
Despite the rumblings of Moscow and Washington over his head, President Berdymukhamedov is keeping his own counsel, not really talking up the Trans-Caspian. It was not mentioned specifically in state media coverage of the meeting with Morningstar, despite the usual mantra about "diversification" although there was mention of "implementing ambitious projects of regional and international significance, in particular in the gas sector."
On a trip last month to Bucharest, the Turkmen leader was as supportive as he has ever been about the Trans-Caspian – along with discussing other ways of getting Turkmen gas to Europe – and even talked about the need for a tripartite agreement among the EU, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. But first, comes the long-stalled resolution of the dispute with Baku.