By Maksim Yeniseyev
TASHKENT -- Uzbekistani government and energy industry officials are transforming the country's energy infrastructure.
The move comes as the government seeks to obtain energy security for the country and to protect vulnerable infrastructure from terrorist attack.
Plans are ambitious and sweeping: state-run Uzbekneftegaz (Uzbek Oil and Gas) May 19 announced that it would begin implementing mammoth oil and gas projects worth more than US $20 billion (58.5 trillion UZS).
In May, Uzbekistanis marked the opening of the Ustyurt gas-chemical complex in Karakalpakstan, which will be the largest in Central Asia, and Prista Recycling, a 51% Bulgarian-owned waste oil-recycling plant in Angren, Tashkent Province.
Uzbekistan is striving to attain energy self-sufficiency.
At the same time, the government wishes to protect natural-gas pipelines and other infrastructure from terrorist threats.
A fire last August on the Yangiyer-to-Tashkent gas pipeline served as a wake-up call about the dangers that await lack of vigilance. Though accidental in origin, it frightened many Uzbekistanis.
"Oil and gas is an essential sector for... Uzbekistan," Tashkent-based reporter Rustam Faiziyev, a columnist for Ekonomicheskii Vestnik (Economic Herald), told Central Asia Online. "[Its own] oil and gas account for 96% of the energy the country needs."
"Uzbekistan ... can fully ensure its energy security," Faiziyev said. "Still, we are constantly exploring new fields and developing infrastructure."
The country ranks "eighth in the world in natural-gas production", Abror Jurayev, a spokesman for the Tashkent-based firm UzGazProekt (Uzbek Gas Projects), told Central Asia Online.
Jurayev's company is working to "increase proven oil reserves to 132m tonnes", Jurayev added.
Uzbekistan, recognising the value of foreign investment, is seeking the investment to help it not only find oil and gas but also to diversify its energy industry.
Two major hydrocarbon-processing projects began operating in May.
"Two refineries operate in Uzbekistan today, as well as two gas-processing plants," Timur Tursunov, a spokesman for Uzbekneftegaz, told Central Asia Online.
The new Uzbekistani facilities include the Ustyurt gas chemical complex in Karakalpakstan, which opened May 21, he said.
The plant is expected to produce 580,000 tonnes of hydrocarbons per year, Tursunov said. South Korea helped build it.
Another new facility that will help Uzbekistan maintain energy security is Prista Recycling, a Bulgarian-Uzbekistani joint venture in Angren that recycles used motor oil. It opened May 18.
Uzbekistan intends to keep building more oil and gas plants, Tursunov said.
At the same time, it recognises the danger that terrorists pose to energy infrastructure, such as gas-processing plants, oil storage tanks and gas pipelines.
"Because of the fire and explosion hazards, these sites might become a terrorist target," Oibek Tokhirov, an employee of the Uzbek national fire department, which is part of the Interior Ministry (MVD), told Central Asia Online. "One example is the bombing of the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline in Turkey last August 4."
"I don't believe we should expect such incidents in Uzbekistan," Tokhirov continued. "We have very strict security measures and have had not had any terrorist attacks for about 12 years."
Uzbekistan's last known terrorist acts occurred in Tashkent and Bukhara in 2004.
An accidental fire, though, last August 25 did remind the public of the dangers that terrorists could inflict. It occurred on the Yangiyer-to-Tashkent pipeline at a point in Chirchik.
The cause turned out to be a gas leak and metal fatigue on part of the pipeline. Fire-fighters extinguished the flames within two hours. Nobody was injured.
Uzbekistani professionals stand ready to fight such fires, whatever their origins.
"We have a militarised agency devoted to preventing and extinguishing oil and gas blow-outs," Tokhirov said. "It has a unique 50-year history of success."