Last month saw a major step forward for the proposed TAPI natural gas pipeline. Regarded as a perennial pipe dream by many energy analysts, many critics of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India project were silenced by the signing of a gas sales and purchase agreement between Turkmengaz, Inter State Gas Systems of Pakistan and the Gas Authority of India (GAIL). With the backing of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the deal set important specifics, including payment and transit terms. But the ambitious project still faces daunting hurdles before it can become reality.
Not least of these challenges is its proposed 750 kilometer route through some of Afghanistan's most war-torn provinces such as Herat and Kandahar. TAPI has received strong support from the United States as part of Washington's "New Silk Road" strategy to bring development to Afghanistan through regional infrastructure connections, and as an alternative to the proposed Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline. As part of the recent agreement, GAIL will be responsible for managing the pipeline's security -- from the Turkmen border to end consumers in Indian homes -- and Pakistan's participation in the project may spare it some attacks. Despite this factor, there is no question that security will remain a major concern throughout the pipeline's construction and operation.
However, it may not be the greatest challenge to the realization of TAPI. That challenge may come simply from the size and focus of the project. Feasibility studies have been conducted, most notably by the ADB. But if the consortium does not concentrate on quickly constructing a commerc?ally-or?ented pipeline on a manageable scale, it risks repeating the mistakes of the now infamous Nabucco pipeline, which was to have connected Turkmenistan on its Caspian side with natural gas consumers in Central Europe. After close to a decade and a half of discussion, Nabucco is now being scaled back to half its size, and may not go forward at all. Nabucco's faults were that it was a geopolitical project, aimed at busting Russian gas dominance in Eurasia, and that at 3,000+ km it became an unwieldy mess of multiple transit countries and stakeholders. Aimed at providing a massive 31 billion cubic meters of gas each year, it was in danger of becoming technically unfeasible, as well as transporting more gas than could realistically be consumed downstream.
Current plans for TAPI call for a 1700 kilometer line bringing up to 33 billion cubic meters of gas per year to consumers along the route. This is already very ambitious for a route traversing dangerous territory, and following last month's agreement, Bangladesh expressed interest in joining the project, potentially extending it to 2500 kilometers, with an increased capacity. Projected costs, calculated by the ADB, have also grown from $7.5 billion to $12 billion, even without the proposed Bangladesh extension.
The Afghanistan portion is undeniably critical to TAPI's construction: there is no other route for Turkmen gas to reach South Asia. It could bring major benefits to the feeble Afghan economy, especially if plans are realized for spin-off projects to serve local communities along the way. But, TAPI will fail if it becomes a "peace pipeline," whether for Afghanistan or between India and Pakistan. To their credit, the U.S. State Department officials working on the project have consistently stressed that it must first and foremost be commercially viable. But that does not stop regional actors, whether part of the consortium or not, from politicizing an already sensitive trans-national project.
TAPI must also maintain a reasonable scope. The construction of a record-breaking pipeline through a conflict zone with too many regional cooks in the kitchen is an insurmountable task. A relatively modest gas link with sound commercial underpinning and adequate security provisions may stand a chance at becoming reality. The current plan still resembles the second option, but there have been indications recently that we could end up with the first. New partners, whether Bangladesh or others, can join later, once pipe has actually been laid. Technical provisions can be made for the pipeline's capacity to be expanded down the road. The key is to have the pipeline built, not to continually talk about building it.
TAPI should move forward on the basis of this past month's agreement. The current partners have been working together for years and, according to the ADB, have finally overcome the majority of the sticking points that stood in the way of implementation. The focus should be on progress towards construction, not expansion of the project. Eurasia has seen its fair share of pipe dreams. It is time for one to become reality. The region does not need another Nabucco.
Alexandros Petersen is author of the The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West and Advisor to the European Energy Security Initiative at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His current research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.
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