Turkey plays with Russian fire: Plan for natural gas from Turkmenistan amid shadow transit in Bulgaria

Fears of Moscow retaliation if Ankara appears to be benefiting from gas cut to Turkey’s European neighbors

With fears that Russia may cut off gas supplies to Europe, Turkey is working on plans to import gas from Turkmenistan and has begun shipping gas to neighboring Bulgaria, which has already cut off Russian gas supplies.

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay announced on June 2 that Ankara is exploring three alternative routes for gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and the TANAP pipeline, which runs through Turkey to Greece.

Oktay did not explicitly say the goal was to supply gas to Europe, but with Turkey itself facing no immediate gas shortages and European leaders actively courting Turkey and Caspian gas producers to increase flows after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the intent seems clear.

He gave few details about the projects themselves, describing them only as “an exchange agreement” and “a combination of pipeline and ships” and said: “We are close to completion.”

The exchange report almost certainly refers to an existing tripartite agreement signed in December last year under which Turkmenistan will supply 1.5-2.0 billion cubic meters per year of natural gas to gas-deficient northeast Iran and the same volume flows from gas-surplus northwest Iran to Azerbaijan.

The deal allowed Azerbaijan to export more natural gas to Europe via the TANAP pipeline through Turkey and meet its own growing domestic demand. Its success has sparked speculation that it could be expanded to allow more gas to be shipped to Europe.

The nature of the pipeline Oktai mentioned is less clear, but the huge cost of a large pipeline through the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan’s main gas fields seems to rule it out for now. He was more likely to mean the 48-mile pipeline proposed by US-based Trans Caspian Resources (TCR), which plans to carry gas from a new Turkmenistan oil field in the Caspian to an Azerbaijan oil and gas field , from which other pipelines could carry the gas onshore to Azerbaijan for transit to Turkey.

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The combination option probably refers to compressed natural gas (CNG) rather than the much more expensive to produce liquefied natural gas (LNG). CNG can be produced cheaply and is already transported by ships in some parts of the world.

All three alternatives face potential problems. All three rely on gas transit through Azerbaijan, whose officials, while saying they are open to expanding gas exports to Europe, have not agreed to carry gas from other countries.

Iranian officials have signaled interest in transiting more gas at least as far as Azerbaijan, but it is less clear how transiting that gas to Europe would comply with existing international sanctions. It is also unclear how much natural gas Iran could transit under a decade of sanctions that have left the Islamic Republic’s natural gas network in disrepair.

Likewise, with no CNG tankers currently available in the Caspian, vessels would have to either be built or converted from existing vessels. It is unclear how quickly this could be achieved and how much gas they could carry.

TCR claims its pipeline could be completed in just one year and transport up to 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year. But despite being the brainchild of its co-owner, former US ambassador to Turkmenistan Allan Mustard, TCR has yet to attract investors, a process that given regional uncertainties could take longer than the project itself .

Meanwhile, Ankara has already quietly started exporting natural gas to Bulgaria. Moscow cut off gas exports to Bulgaria in late April as a result of EU sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leaving Bulgaria, which relies on Russia for most of its gas imports, in short supply.

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Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister Asen Vasilev announced on June 6 that Bulgaria has started importing LNG from the United States via Turkey.

Turkey’s state gas company Botas, through whose LNG terminal the imports were made, has not commented on the matter. However, data released by Turkey’s energy exchange EPIAS confirmed that export capacity had been allocated to the Turkey-Bulgaria natural gas pipeline between May 31 and June 10 as a trial period, during which natural gas appears to be exported.

However, this data was subsequently deleted with no reason given or any indication of when or if new LNG imports will be made to supply Bulgaria. Officials familiar with the matter confirmed to Al-Monitor that the gas would have been transited on a “trial basis” as there is still no formal agreement allowing gas exports from Turkey to Bulgaria, and have suggested that a lack of information may have are due to fears that Moscow may retaliate against Turkey if it appears that Ankara is benefiting from the gas cut to Turkey’s European neighbors.

If so, it may yet prove problematic for Turkey’s plans for Turkmenistan’s gas, regardless of where it is piped.

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