No Comment — September 25, 2009, 11:45 am

The Great Pipeline Opera

Nabucco is an opera by Giuseppe Verdi that contains the famous chorus “Va, pensiero.” Nabucco is also the name of a massive new pipeline project that promises to bring gas from the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia to Middle Europe via Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania—bypassing Russia. Like the opera, the pipeline project is also filled with not-quite-convincing moments of drama. Daniel Freifeld takes us on a tour of the project, its proponents, and its detractors, in an excellent and amusing article in the current Foreign Policy.

While American foreign-policy experts trade blows over the Obama Administration’s plan to reshape the missile defense plan for Eastern Europe, Europeans and Russians are more closely focused on the great hydrocarbon transportation game. Russian foreign policy aims to control the movement of natural gas to Middle Europe. The Kremlin’s key allies in this process are in Germany’s Social Democratic Party. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder signed on as a key advocate of a Kremlin pet project on his way out of public office. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the senior SPD figure in the current Great Coalition government in Berlin, has insured that German diplomacy back Schröder and the Russians to the hilt. How the Germans vote on Sunday may have some effect on this plan–particularly if the Christian Democrats are able to form a new government without Steinmeier and Company.

Meanwhile, other European interests are nervous about the evolving energy dependency on Russia and determined to find a new transportation corridor that shortcircuits the Russian great design. And so Nabucco was born. Whereas the Kremlin has Schröder, Team Nabucco features the star of the German Green party, Joschka Fischer—the only man ever to become a professor at Princeton University without first obtaining the equivalent of a high school diploma:

In many ways, Schröder and Fischer personify the intense struggle–some call it a war–over Europe’s energy future. On one side are those countries most worried about their dependence on Moscow, especially the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. On the other are countries such as Italy and Germany and leaders such as Schröder, who see closer ties with Russia as both a mercantilist opportunity and a strategic imperative. When I caught up with Schröder at a conference in Houston earlier this year, he was quick to brush aside concerns about Moscow. “There is no reason to doubt the reliability of Russia as a partner,” Schröder said. “We must be a partner of Russia if we want to share in the vast raw material reserves in Siberia. The alternative for Russia would be to share these reserves with China.”

This gas war is especially hard-fought because of the physical nature of the prize itself. Unlike oil, which can be put onto tankers and shipped anywhere, gas is generally moved in pipelines that traverse, and are thus tethered to, geography. Because a pipeline cannot be rerouted, producers and consumers sign long-term agreements that bind one to the politics of the other, as well as to the transit states in between. In this way, today’s gas war is a zero-sum conflict similar to the scramble for resources that divided Eurasia in the 19th century. And now, as then, commerce is taking a back seat to politics.

Freifeld takes an informed but somewhat more downbeat view of Nabucco’s prospects than I do. But I write this at the end of a long day in Almaty, where I’ve been talking to financial experts and oil and gas executives, whose boundless optimism about oil and gas in the Caspian basin is infectious, while probably a bigger snow job than the one that blanketed the tops of the Alatau Mountains this morning. So I put a couple of extra questions to Freifeld about his piece.

You point out that a major question behind Nabucco is simple: where’s the gas that will justify this project? You stop the tap at Azerbaijan, whereas the facing shore of the Caspian, in Turkmenistan, has substantial reserves and strong pressure for an alternate market in view of the very difficult relationship Turkmenistan has developed with Gazprom. Would a trans-Caspian supply of Turkmen gas solve the Nabucco supply problem?

A trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline would certainly go a long way towards addressing Nabucco’s supply problems. Turkmenistan reportedly has reserves placing it in the company of Russia, Iran, and Qatar–among the world’s largest resource holders. Trans-Caspian gas-pipeline optimists point to the fact that the disputed offshore gas field Kyapaz/Serdar, resting below the median baseline between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, is only a short distance from Azerbaijan’s already operational offshore gas field, Shah Deniz. Yet, despite a recent warming, however tepid, of relations between Ashgabat and Baku, there remains a raft of knotty political and legal issues before a transnational Caspian energy project can be launched, including a final demarcation of the sea by the littoral states, satisfaction of “environmental” concerns raised by the Russians, and general Iranian intransigence on final-status Caspian issues.

Moreover, even if these issues were to be satisfactorily addressed, Turkmenistan has yet to demonstrate that it can be a reliable energy partner. Since the 1990s, it has vacillated between offering a seat at the negotiating table and hermetically sealing itself off from Western partners. This is not to blame the country for its energy strategy. Rather, it is to highlight the regime’s general insecurity and international isolation, the pressure it feels from Russia to reject Western partners, and, partly as a result of both, the sometimes puzzling business and political mentality prevalent in Ashgabat.

Your piece focuses on the movement of gas to the west, satisfying the demands of the European market. But of course there is also a great hunger for gas coming out of the East, especially from China, which has major projects in Kazakhstan and recently moved quickly to implement a significant deal for gas from Turkmenistan. Do you see the Chinese demand as undermining the Nabucco project, or as the sign of a further tightening and intensification of competition?

Although there have been occasional sightings of Chinese energy officials dashing around Baku, Chinese interest in Caspian oil and gas has largely been limited to countries on the eastern shore: Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. And, with the exception of a couple major deals initiated in the late 1990s, the Chinese have been more successful than Western firms in doing business in the region. In Turkmenistan – the biggest “gas prize” in the region – President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov seems to have divided the country into three spheres. To China goes the “Right Bank” of the Amu Darya, the thin strip of land between the river to the west and Uzbekistan to the east, a region rumored to hold up to 46 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Russians, partly through the legacy of Soviet pipelines and partly through renewed negotiations, have been granted access to onshore reserves west of the Amu Darya. Western companies have been tentatively offered offshore fields in the Caspian, particularly Kyapaz/Serdar at the midpoint between Azerbaijan’s and Turkmenistan’s Caspian territory. Practically speaking, then, the only gas volumes remotely possible for Nabucco would be found on the opposite end of Turkmenistan from the Chinese stake. In fact, barring some sort of deep collusion between the Chinese and the Russians for the spoils of Central Asia, which is highly improbable (despite much alarm in some quarters), the only country likely to be rankled by the Chinese deal is Russia, which until now has been the only country seriously producing and shipping gas from Turkmenistan (with the exception of a small pipeline to Iran). Moreover, some observers believe that Turkmenistan’s deal with China serves as a buffer with Uzbekistan, whose leader, Islam Karimov, had a less-than-cordial relationship with Berdimuhamedov’s predecessor. The Chinese stake frees up Berdimuhamedov a bit to focus towards the West, now that any renewed tensions with Uzbekistan will ultimately threaten China’s regional investments, an antagonism Karimov would likely prefer to avoid.

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