Iran Can Solve Turkmenistan’s Natural Gas Dilemma
Iran Can Solve Turkmenistan’s Natural Gas Dilemma
By Amin Noorbakhsh
January 25, 2021
Bordering Iran on the northeast, Turkmenistan is a Central Asian country with a population of 6 million. What Turkmenistan lacks in population it makes up in enormous energy reserves. Domestically produced natural gas accounts for 80 percent of the feedstock used for electricity production. In 2006, discovery of the world’s second largest natural field, Galkynysh, saw the country become the country with the fourth largest natural gas reserves worldwide.
From the first days of independence from Soviet Union, Turkmen energy policy has focused on the diversification of its export destinations. At the time, Russia was the primary customer. But tensions in energy negotiations with Russia in 1997 led to concerns over dependence on a single country for energy exports. Turkmenistan launched negotiations with Iran to create a new market for its natural gas exports. That same year, the Korpezhe–Kurt Kui pipeline was commissioned and began exporting 6 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year of natural gas to Iran as part of a 25 year-long contract.
Since then, Turkmenistan has pursued other destinations for its natural has exports, with mixed success. In 2006, Turkmenistan and China signed a production sharing contract to develop a large portion of Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves as well as an agreement on the construction of the Turkmenistan–China gas pipeline. The initial phase of the pipeline was inaugrated in 2009. That same year, the Turkmen government failed to agree upon the new contractual terms with Russia, leading to a 75 percent decrease in the volume sold to their primary customer. China became Turkmenistan’s leading customer, with construction of parallel lines on the Turkmenistan–China gas pipeline continuing through 2014.
The collective capacity of the three pipelines equaled 55 bcm per year, making China the largest buyer of Turkmenistan natural gas with more than 30 percent share of exports. Today, Turkmenistan is seeking new customers to prevent over-dependence on the Chinese energy market. For this purpose, in 2015, Turkmenistan launched construction a new pipeline connecting Turkmenistan’s natural gas fields to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India—this project is known as TAPI pipeline.
Despite these efforts, Turkmenistan has failed to find a reliable means to increase its export capacity and its natural gas production surplus is only set to grow. Turkmenistan’s largest natural gas field, Galkynysh, currently produces 30 bcm per year. Predictions show that the number may rise to 70 bcm per year by 2025. Moreover, offshore fields which are producing at their minimum capacities, may see production rise to 20 bcm per year in near future. In addition, there are several undeveloped small fields, production potential of which estimated to be 20 bcm per year. Turkmen officials have made even more optimistic predictions of future production of natural gas. For instance, Ashirguli Begliyev, CEO of state energy giant Turkmengaz, has declared that production totals will reach as high as 230 bcm per year by 2030.
Looking to consumption side, subsidies have led to natural gas consumption figures higher than international averages. In 2015, domestic consumption was 34 bcm and is expected to rise 5 percent annually. Therefore, domestic consumption will ultimately reach to 55 bcm per year by 2030. Looking at difference between production and consumption, and subtracting the 50 bcm per year of exports to China, Turkmenistan’s surplus natural gas production can be expected to rise to at least 40 bcm per year by the end of the decade.
For Iran, Turkmenistan’s growing surplus is not only a potential source of competition in the global natural gas market, but also an opportunity. Turkmenistan will need to find ways to export its production to various new and existing customers at higher volumes than every before. Turkmen policymakers have four options.
First, Turkmenistan may rely on the TAPI pipeline. This pipeline is designed to export 30 bcm per year of natural gas through Afghanistan and Pakistan to its final destination, India. Although TAPI is the main prospect for Turkmenistan’s natural gas exports, particularly because the project is supported by the United States as an alternative to the suspended Iran–Pakistan gas pipeline, also known as the Peace pipeline, the TAPI project remains hampered by instability and security issues in Afghan territory.
Second, Turkmenistan may rely on the planned Trans-Caspian pipeline. If constructed, the pipeline would connect Turkmenistan’s gas fields to the European customers through Azerbaijan. However, the technical complexities of pipeline construction in deep sea areas, legal issues around maritime boundaries, the negative views of Russia and Iran towards the project, and Azerbaijan’s reluctance to extend the pipeline to Turkmenistan all make implementation an unlikely prospect.
Third, Turkmenistan could seek the construction of a new pipeline to China, relaying on a route across its Central Asian neighbors of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. However, such an option would be at odds with Turkmenistan’s efforts to diversify its export destinations.
Finally, Turkmenistan could seek to increase export volumes to Iran, either through the full utilization of the 24 bcm per year of capacity available in existing pipelines or through the construction of new infrastructure. Increasing natural gas exports to Iran may prove Turkmenistan’s best option. For Iran, there are also numerous benefits. Due to Iran’s proximity to Turkemistan’s natural gas fields import costs would be low. The addition of supply from Turkmenistan would enable Iran to supply the northeast, while using its southern natural gas fields to increase export volumes to Iraq and other customers. Iran’s central role in the region can also enable the country to serve as a natural gas hub, including for liquid natural gas shipments through the Persian Gulf.
Considering the difficulties associated with facilitating exports to Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and China, Turkmenistan and Iran have an opportunity to enter new gas deals on the basis of clear mutual benefits. Iran’s strategy to become the natural gas hub of the region depends on developing several gas corridors with its neighbors—gas-rich Turkmenistan ought to be a key partner in this strategy.