Turkmenistan: Fiddling while gas leaks
There is fiddling while Rome burns. And then there is what Turkmenistan does.
On May 11, the Foreign Ministry held a baffling roundtable devoted to the promotion of the green economy. Government officials and representatives of the United Nations got together and had a nice talk about what a good idea it might be to introduce low-carbon solutions as a means toward combatting climate change.
The proceedings involved Deputy Foreign Minister Myakhri Byashimova delivering a speech in which she claimed that “developing innovative solutions in the environmental field is a priority” for Turkmenistan.
As lies go, that one is a doozy.
Only two days before that roundtable took place, the Guardian newspaper published a report revealing how satellite data demonstrated that methane leaks from two gas fields in Turkmenistan contributed more to global warming in 2022 than did all the United Kingdom’s carbon emissions.
“The data produced by [monitoring firm] Kayrros for the Guardian found that the western fossil fuel field in Turkmenistan, on the Caspian coast, leaked 2.6 [million tonnes] of methane in 2022. The eastern field emitted 1.8 [million tonnes]. Together, the two fields released emissions equivalent to 366 [million] tonnes of CO2,” the newspaper reported.
This data is startling. The population of the UK is more than 10 times greater than that of Turkmenistan.
What is most dispiriting is that mitigating the problem should be relatively easy. One major issue is the degree of venting that Turkmenistan does. This process describes when methane gas is released directly into the atmosphere, often as a means to relieve pressure or prevent explosions.
At the very least, Turkmenistan could burn off build-ups of natural gas in what is known as flaring. This still produces greenhouse gas emissions, but CO2 is somewhat less harmful than methane over the long term.
But as the Guardian’s report noted, 24 of 29 super-emitter events recorded in satellite data from 2017 and 2022 “came from flare stacks that had been extinguished and were then venting methane directly into the air.”
Which is to say that Turkmenistan is going out of its way to make things worse. The likelihood is that Turkmen officials hoped, ostrich-like, that putting out flares would make the scale of their country’s emissions less visible from space and therefore make the problem go away.
It is not as though this is a new matter on the agenda. Back in October 2021, the European Union was meekly urging Turkmenistan to join a freshly minted Global Methane Pledge as part of a “collective goal of reducing global methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030.” This has been ignored.
The United States is doing some gentle prodding too now. On the same day the Foreign Ministry had its ludicrous roundtable, the acting head of the ministry, Vepa Khadzhiyev, met with the deputy assistant administrator of the Asian bureau at the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, to discuss, among many other things, what is being done by a joint US-Turkmen working group on the reduction of methane emissions. What is being done is very little by all appearances.
It is possible that the people in charge of Turkmenistan’s gas industry are distracted by other business.
Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported on May 15 that the former deputy chairman of the state-run gas company Turkmengaz, Atamurat Chariyev, has been sentenced to eight years in prison over an accident at the Galkynysh field this past winter that led to the temporary suspension of gas deliveries to Uzbekistan. An audit from the Prosecutor General's Office obtained by Turkmen.news a few weeks after the incident occurred estimated the cost of those missed deliveries at $59.7mn.
This appears to have been a “you had one job”-type situation. According to Turkmen.news, Chariyev was from 2019 to 2021 directly responsible for procuring the anti-freeze reagents needed to prevent the kind of accident that caused the gas halt. The website’s sources claim he bought cheap versions and then divvied up the money saved with his cronies in Turkmengaz. The way that corruption typically works is that ill-gotten gains need to be shared up the company hierarchy, so one would expect the head of Turkmengaz to also have been asked some difficult questions.
Instead, on May 13, Batyr Amanov was, in a case of failing upward, moved from his job as Turkmengaz chairman to a post as a deputy prime minister with the portfolio of overseeing the oil and gas industry.
Turkmen.news unkindly led its coverage of this reshuffle by reminding readers that Amanov’s cousin is married to President Serdar Berdimuhamedov’s sister, thereby implying this was not a competence-based appointment. Not that this family link has been enough to put Amanov’s mind at rest. Turkmen.news sources say the outgoing head of the gas company has struggled to sleep for months over worries he too might be arrested.
Amanov’s survival spells serious trouble for the energy industry, though. He is described by Turkmen.news sources as being completely incompetent, and deeply corrupt to boot. His fierce love of pumping people for bribes has apparently earned him the nicknames “Mujahedin” and “Terminator.”
The timing is not great. In a fresh report on the performance of economies across the Middle East and Central Asia, the International Monetary Fund estimated that gross domestic product in Turkmenistan expanded by a meagre 1.8% in 2022. This would be a joyful outcome in any developed economy, but official Turkmen data had GDP growth at 6.2%. The last thing a stagnating economy should need is an incompetent crook calling the shots in its most important industry.
On May 10, President Berdimuhamedov finally made it to Tajikistan for a two-day state visit that had to be postponed following his grandmother’s death last month. The visit produced the usual frenzied signing of agreements on economic, security and cultural matters, as well as mutual professions of undying admiration, but there was little by way of meaty headline business.
Among the points of note are that Turkmenistan is eager to have Tajikistan make fuller use of a westbound transportation corridor connecting both countries to the Caspian Sea. More specifically, Berdimuhamedov is making a sales pitch for Tajik freight companies to make use of the Turkmenbashi sea port that his government built at great expense.
Turkmenistan will have to offer tempting rates, though. Tajik freight companies working with Turkey, for example, have traditionally been reluctant to go across the Caspian since this option is more expensive – and time-consuming unless ferries are running seamlessly and regularly – than simply going overland through Iran.
There is no indication from the official agenda that much attention was paid to the state of play with the so-called Line D of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which is to be built – if it is ever built – through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan is counting on this project happening for access to cheap gas, transit fees and construction project dividends.
This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.
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