ASHGABAT -- The European Union (EU) and Turkmenistan are continuing discussions on the delivery of Turkmen natural gas to Europe despite opposition from Iran and Russia.
An energy partnership was one of the main topics of discussion during the 19th session of the Turkmenistan-European Union Joint Committee on June 24, Turkmen state news agency TDH reported.
As part of the talks, which took place online because of the coronavirus pandemic, EU and Turkmen economic officials discussed expanding co-operation on trade, the private sector and the economy, among other areas.
In particular, they discussed diversifying gas exports by delivering Turkmen gas to the proposed Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) via the proposed Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP).
The SGC is an EU-suggested gas supply route from the Middle East and the Caspian to the EU countries. If completed, it would reduce the bloc's dependence on Russian gas.
The SGC remains a feasible route for sending Turkmen gas to European consumers while bypassing Russia, said an official from the Agency on Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources under the President of Turkmenistan. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Turkmenistan needs such an alternative because the Kremlin is unlikely to allow it to use Russian pipelines to compete for European customers, said the official.
"Will Moscow really allow another gas supplier into a market where it dictates the terms?" he asked rhetorically.
"Russia and Iran are against this project," he said, referring to the TCGP.
The TCGP would allow the SGC to be filled with the required volume of gas. When the SGC is completed, Azerbaijan will supply 16 billion cubic metres of gas per year to the SGC, of which 6 billion metres per year are intended for Turkey, according to the official.
Ashgabat is confident that available gas reserves and pumping capacity would allow Turkmenistan to annually supply up to 30 billion cubic metres of gas to Europe, he said.
"However, Iran and Russia, Turkmenistan's main competitors in the gas market, are concocting various reasons why we won't be able to diversify gas exports."
Bone of contention
The TCGP has become a matter of contention since officials first proposed it in the 1990s.
Turkmenistan already has completed considerable work, using its own funds to build the 733km-long East-West gas pipeline, which has a capacity of 30 billion cubic metres per year.
That pipeline "was built to feed the [TCGP]", said Ainazar Khalimov of Turkmenneftegazstroi (Turkmen Oil and Gas Construction).
The planned TCGP would be only 300km long, far shorter than the already-completed East-West pipeline, he noted.
However, to this day, workers have no laid no pipe along the bottom of the Caspian Sea because of opposition from Iran and Russia.
The Russian and Iranian regimes initially cited uncertainty over the sea's legal status to torpedo the idea, according to Khalimov. However, the leaders of the five Caspian littoral states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan -- signed a treaty defining the sea's legal status on August 12, 2018.
Deprived of that argument, Tehran and Moscow now claim that the TCGP will harm the sea's ecosystem.
"This is, of course, a far-fetched pretext," said Khalimov.
"When Russia laid its Nord Stream and TurkStream gas pipelines on the seabed, it didn't worry about environmental issues, but now it has suddenly started to worry," he said, referring to pipelines spanning the Baltic and Black seas.
Turkmenistan needs to act, say pipeline proponents.
The TCGP remains viable because of interest from the EU, say backers of the pipeline.
It remains key to the EU energy security strategy, said Lubomir Frebort, head of the EU liaison office in Ashgabat, earlier this year at an event dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Turkmenistan's neutrality.
The project is on the EU's list of priority energy projects, he said, according to Vestnik Kavkaza.
Building a gas pipeline across the Caspian is not technically difficult, but merely wanting something is not enough and Turkmenistan needs to act, say analysts.
"Our government should act persistently to find a contractor, investor, create the same consortium as with the [under-construction] TAPI [Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India] gas pipeline, and also discuss [production] volumes, gas prices and other issues with the SGC consortium," said the official from the Agency on Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources.
"Unfortunately, over these almost 30 years, Turkmenistan has not held a single serious dialogue with transit countries and gas-buying countries about these aspects of the [TCGP]," he said.