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Probing a Sea option for Turkmen Gas

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  • August 27, 2015

    There is both an element of continuity and change in the NDA-led Indian Government towards the Turkmen gas pipeline project. Continuity because during his recent visit to Turkmenistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vociferously ‘pitched’ for a speedy realisation of the TAPI gas pipeline project and remarked that the stakeholders in the project must consider a ‘land-sea route’ option instead of an overland route which passes through Afghanistan and Pakistan [1]. And change because it is a major departure from the traditional discourse on the TAPI pipeline project which has always advocated an overland route passing through Pakistan. Several analysts within India had questioned the viability of an overland route passing through southern Afghanistan and northern Balochistan. As per a senior security official interviewed by the author, the original rationale to pursue an overland route at the time of signing Gas Sales and Purchase Agreement in 2012 was encouraged by the assumption that Pakistan will cooperate in the project and ensure its security in restive areas like Southern Afghanistan given its own energy interests. This fresh move on the Indian Prime Minister’s part is perhaps meant to signal to Pakistan that if the latter continues with its hostilities and political rhetoric towards India, then India and other countries may consider an alternative arrangement. Secondly it is meant to convey to the Central Asian states that with the opening of Iran, the latter will have more alternative outlets for their energy exports.

    In the early 1990s, options were explored to export Turkmen gas via a land-sea route through Iran for the comparatively safer transit of energy supplies [2]. The idea was to obtain gas from Turkmen fields, which would then transit through parts of western Afghanistan and the entire stretch of Iran. From Iran, there could be two different ways to further transport the gas. One option, as originally suggested by several scholars would be to revisit the idea of building an underwater deep sea pipeline to India [3]. In the changed geopolitical circumstances, it will not be a bad idea to give this route a serious thought [4]. Unlike earlier times, the technology to build a deep-sea pipeline from Iran to India is available now [5]. The advantages of following this route are that, firstly Iran can pump its own gas to India from the same pipeline. And secondly, bringing more exporting countries into the project can significantly offset the enormous infrastructure costs that will go into building the pipeline.

    The second option could be to liquefy the Turkmen gas at Iranian ports and ship it via LNG tankers to India. As hoped by several analysts, with the gradual lifting of sanctions, the necessary technology and investments essential for building liquefaction facilities in Iran would be easier to access. Along with Turkmen gas, Iran can also consider sending its own LNG to India. News reports have already suggested that GAIL is currently in talks with Iran to explore the possibilities of reviving the LNG agreement [6].

    In the changed geopolitical circumstances, following a ‘land-sea route’ as suggested by Prime Minister Modi would prove beneficial for all parties. If the infrastructure for a deep sea pipeline or an LNG terminal can be put in place in coming years, then this route can also become an outlet for other energy surplus Central Asian countries to export their resources to markets beyond South Asia. But ultimately, this option would be contingent upon the price factor. Firstly, a land-sea option involving either a deep sea pipeline or LNG tankers will substantially escalate the landed price of gas for India. Secondly, with the possibility of Pakistan remaining out of the project, stakeholders will also have to look at additional consumers along with India to absorb the enormous volumes of gas. The international consortium formed for the TAPI project must explore partnering with interested European countries who are currently exploring possibilities of reducing their energy dependence on Russian gas supplies [7]. But the key question here is whether Turkmen gas would be able to compete with US shale exports to Europe. If such commercial issues can be reconciled, then with possible European participation, the project would have greater chances of early realisation.

    As several media reports have indicated, some deal on the Turkmen pipeline project is expected in the coming months. With no visible signs of improvement in Indo-Pak relations, it would be imperative for interested stakeholders in the Turkmen pipeline to make some difficult choices in terms of finding a more viable route. The stakeholders must reconcile to the looming possibility of Pakistan’s absence from the project. The implications of such a move for Pakistan are difficult to estimate. With Russian assistance for building a North-South domestic gas pipeline starting from Karachi, Pakistan seems confident about its energy security concerns which will be met by Russian LNG in the coming years [8]. But on the flip side, by remaining indifferent to improving political relations with India, Pakistan seems to be missing the larger picture. Ideally, if Turkmen gas flows through an overland route via Pakistan, then as widely suggested in policy and media circles, it can earn handsome transit fees. If such a route fructifies, then more Central Asian states will follow suit and consider exporting their energy resources through Pakistan thereby placing the latter in a role similar to that of Turkey [9]. But if in the coming months the international consortium decides to pursue the land-sea route for Turkmen gas, then the entire focus will shift towards making Iran the next energy outlet for this part of the world. In these circumstances, Pakistan needs to choose which way it wants to go.

    References –

    1. Modi pushes for TAPI project’, The Hindu, July 12, 2015, (accessed on August 26, 2015).
    2. Ahmed Rashid in his book notes that the land sea route was discarded due to USA’s reservations vis-à-vis Iran. For details See- Ahmed Rashid, ‘Taliban The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond’, I.B. Tauris, London, 2010, p. 151.
    3. Shebonti Ray Dadwal, ‘Politics of the Iran-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline Project’, in I.P. Khosla (ed.), Energy and Diplomacy, New Delhi, Konark Publishers, 2005, p.135.
    4. Sameer Mallya, ‘Iran Nuclear Deal: A Mixed Blessing for India’, Article No. 1424, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, August 21 2015, (accessed on August 26, 2015).
    5. Iran looking at exporting natural gas to India via deep sea’, Business Standard, January 17, 2014, (accessed on August 26, 2015).
    6. GAIL in talks with Iran to revive decade-old LNG deal’, The Hindu Business line, August 23, 2015, (accessed on August 26, 2015)
    7. A study by Simon Pirani (2014) has identified Turkmenistan as one possible exporter of gas to Europe via Iran in the aftermath of sanctions removal, For details see- Ralf Dickel, Elham Hassanzadeh, James Henderson, Anouk Honoré, Laura El-Katiri, Simon Pirani, Howard Rogers, Jonathan Stern and Katja Yafimava, ‘Reducing European Dependence on Russian Gas distinguishing natural gas security from geopolitics’, Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, Paper No. 92, 2014, p. 25.
    8. Russia to invest $2 billion to build pipeline in Pakistan’, The Economic Times, April 18, 2015, (accessed on August 26, 2015).
    9. Professor Gulshan Dietl probes Turkey’s role as a major transit hub for gas trade. For details, See- Gulshan Dietl, ‘Will Turkey be the new hub for gas?’, IDSA Comment, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, November 06, 2013, (accessed on August 26, 2015).

    (The writer is a PhD Scholar at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore)

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India