A landmark pipeline from Central Asia to China began pumping natural gas on Monday, loosening Russia’s grip over the region’s vast energy resources.
At a midday ceremony in a field in north-eastern Turkmenistan, the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan together rotated a pipeline spigot to raucous applause and cheering, sending the first consignment of gas on its way to the energy-hungry Asian nation.
By becoming the first major Central Asia gas export route to completely bypass Russia, the new pipeline will play a key role in wresting the former Soviet republics in the region out of Moscow’s economic sphere of influence.
“The pipeline passing through our countries will revive the ancient Silk Road, once a conduit for the intensive exchange of goods between Asia and Europe,” Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, said in a speech before the opening.
The route stretches around 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan up to Kazakhstan’s border with China and then extends more than 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) into China itself.
“The successful implementation of this project could become a prototype for all international energy partnerships,” Mr. Berdymukhamedov said. “This pipeline will have a positive impact across the entire region and beyond, and it will become a major contributing factor to security in Asia.”
Turkmen gas deliveries to China through the pipeline are expected to hit around 6 billion cubic meters in 2010, with supplies increasing incrementally every year until they reach 40 billion cubic meters in 2015.
The pipeline is China’s latest success in a vigorous campaign to seize as many energy assets as possible across Central Asia.
“China gives the highest priority to cooperation between our neighbours and this pipeline is witness to the uninterrupted cooperation that continues to flourish between our nations,” Chinese President Hu Jintao, said on Monday.
This year alone, China has pledged multibillion dollar loans to both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan as part of its bid to secure energy assets and drilling rights in the two countries.
Early Monday morning, hundreds of schoolchildren and local townspeople brandishing flags and balloons lined the road leading up to the spot of the official pipeline commissioning.
After reaching the site, Mr. Hu and Mr. Berdymukhamedov, together with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, watched a show representing all their countries’ musical traditions followed by an equestrian display.
In a televised linkup, gas workers in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China then gave the go-ahead for the pipeline to begin operating.
Gas carried in the pipeline will come from the Bagtyyarlyk concession near Turkmenistan’s border with Uzbekistan, which has been developed by state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation since 2007. Turkmen authorities believes the field may hold up to 1.3 trillion cubic meters (1.7 trillion cubic yards) of gas.
Looking ahead, China already has already trained its sights on the gargantuan South Yolotan natural gas field close to the Afghan border. An independent audit by a British company last year said the field may be one of the five largest in the world.
The start of gas deliveries from Turkmenistan to China comes as the former Soviet nation remains mired in a dispute with Russia. Until recently, Turkmenistan was selling 50 billion cubic meters of gas annually to Russia, which has been using Turkmen gas for domestic needs as well as for re-sale to Europe.
However, supplies have been suspended since a pipeline blast in April that Turkmenistan blamed on Russia’s Gazprom state-controlled gas monopoly.
The pipeline has been fixed, but deliveries to Russia have remained suspended amid arguments about prices. Some international experts have estimated that the halt in shipments may be costing Turkmenistan $1 billion a month.
In a possible bid to mend ties, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, is expected to pay a visit to Turkmenistan later this month.
Observers said that Russia is not interested in Turkmen gas at the moment as the global downturn has prompted consumers in Russia and Europe to buy significantly less gas than before.
“There is an excess of gas in Russia, so this is not exactly bad news for Gazprom,” said Sergei Pikin, director of the Moscow-based Energy Development Fund. “Russia has not bought as much Turkmen gas as planned. It’s only natural that Turkmenistan is looking for new markets.”
Gazprom is also looking for ways to tap the lucrative Chinese market. Back in October, Russia and China set the framework for a multibillion-dollar agreement to build two natural gas pipelines to China from gas fields in Russia’s Far East.
Together, those pipelines would be capable of supplying China with 68 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually, representing a whopping 85 percent of the gas China currently consumes. The two countries, however, have yet to agree on a price.