A natural gas pipeline may bring cheap fuel to Turkey, and much needed income to Turkmenistan. But as producer Anne Marie Ruff reports, a proposed route through the Caspian Sea may pose an environmental threat to Central Asia.
CURWOOD: One of the natural gas pipelines on the drawing board for Central Asia promises to bring the cheap, clean fuel to Turkey and prosperity to the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, and avoid the politics of Iran and Afghanistan. But, as Anne Marie Ruff reports, the proposed route under the Caspian Sea may pose an environmental threat.
RUFF: In Turkmenistan, most people make a difficult living from the land, grazing goats and cattle on eroded hillsides or growing cotton and wheat with precious water in the dry desert ground. But people dream of a future when the country's natural gas and oil reserves will improve their lives. For now, Turkmens use their gas to fill their run-down Russian made cars. Gas is cheap here, about 8 cents a gallon. It means that many people can drive, even though the average monthly wage is only $25. But most people, like English teacher Kakajan Abedaev, think cheap gas is not enough.
ABEDAEV: It's really frustrating for us, the frustrating point for the Turkmen people is that we can't get our gas outside. This is one of the main factors right now.
RUFF: Because the country is landlocked, it has very limited access to foreign markets and the foreign currency those markets would bring. In an attempt to access markets, foreign oil and gas companies have proposed building four different natural gas pipelines with the Turkmen government. The first would run west, under the Caspian Sea, through Azerbaijan and Georgia, to Turkey. A second would run south, through Iran. The third would run east, through Afghanistan, to Pakistan and India. And the last proposed pipeline would travel 4,000 miles to China, along the Old Silk Road, through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Dan Rutz is an American working in Turkmenistan. He is hoping one of the pipelines would be built, since it would jump-start the energy sector and his oil spill response business, Genwest Systems.
RUTZ: I mean, that’s the whole game here. All depends on their pipelines.
RUFF: While the simplest route would be through Iran, sour relations between Iran and the U.S. have scared away foreign investors, and fighting in Afghanistan has halted work on a pipeline to Pakistan in India. So, in the last few years the trans-Caspian Sea pipeline has looked most likely. But the plan is complicated by the fact that the inland sea is bordered by five countries that harvest fish from the sea. Dan Rutz says environmental risks will be felt beyond Turkmenistan.
RUTZ: The risk of putting a pipeline under the Caspian, then, you might look at it more as like a risk to neighboring countries. They're not getting any benefit from this risk that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan might take if that's where the pipeline goes. So Iran or Russia are the ones that are saying, hey, what's the deal with this pipeline?
RUFF: The Iranian government would prefer to see a pipeline run through their country, so they have raised environmental concerns about the trans-Caspian route. But Dan Rutz sees Iran's concerns as hypocritical.
RUTZ: They've got their own underwater oil pipelines and that's coming off the southern Iranian coast, to Kharg Island, where their tank farm is, and there's not much risk with that at all.
RUFF: Many Turkmen people, like English teacher Kakajan Abedaev, cannot dismiss the risks of damaging the sea floor or contaminating the Caspian sea quite so easily.
ABEDEAV: Well, of course everyone in this region is worried about that, I think.
RUFF: But most people are not willing to say so. Kakajan was one of the few people willing to speak to a Western journalist in Turkmenistan, where the government and military maintain a strong presence.
RUFF: Turkmenistan retains much of the character of the former Soviet Union, suppressing opposition and controlling the state's television stations, which frequently broadcast songs praising the country's president, Turkmenbashi.
[TURKISH NATIONAL SONG]
RUFF: The media, and the Secret Police, make both Turkmens and foreigners reluctant to speak out, and Dan Rutz says civil society organizations here have none of the influence enjoyed in the U.S. or Europe.
RUTZ: The NGO’s here are looking to get involved, or they have an active voice but maybe not any sway on the government at this point, but they're just looking at how to find information, how to find out information and how to get involved.
RUFF: But even without active NGO opposition the trans-Caspian pipeline may never be built, as natural gas has been found in Azerbaijan, much closer to the Turkish market. So Turkmenistan's best remaining hope to get their gas out looks like a 4,000 mile pipeline to China. One foreign oil company representative said this unlikely route was actually the most feasible and would even have some environmental benefits. By allowing China to substitute natural gas for coal, China could reduce their air pollution and free up many of the trains they use for transporting coal. Ironically, Kakajan dreams of an economy independent of the pipelines.
ABEDAEV: In the future, I hope Turkmenistan is not going to sell its gas and its oil, it's not going to be dependent on that, because now, we're trying to build our own economy.
RUFF: But foreigners and Turkmens alike agree that, in the short term, the oil and gas sector looks like the only engine available to drive the development of Turkmenistan.
ABEDAEV: We need money; we can't get money if we can't get our oil and gas outside.
RUFF: In the capital of Ashgabat gleaming malls and monuments have already been built in anticipation of oil and gas money flowing in. But that future looks to be many years off. So Turkmens will continue to depend on their herds and their farms for survival.
For Living on Earth, this is Anne Marie Ruff, in Turkmenistan.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
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